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At Kentucky Capitol, halls get decked on the public dime

Alix Mattingly
/
LPM

Records show holiday decor spending on poinsettias and Norway spruces at Kentucky's Capitol over the years.

Amid the pomp and glimmer of the inaugural ball late last month, a row of white poinsettias lined the walls of the Capitol rotunda and circled the towering statue of Abraham Lincoln as Kentucky’s political elite danced and celebrated Gov. Andy Beshear’s reelection.

Those poinsettias aren’t just a feature of the special occasion. The Capitol building gets decorated each winter holiday season and, historically, taxpayers foot some of the bill

Records obtained by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting show that between 2018 and 2022, state officials spent more than $6,400 on holiday flowers and trees to decorate the Capitol building. Officials did not provide spending records for this year’s decor.

Additional records show that in fiscal Years 2023 and 2024, officials spent $4,000 on holiday decorations at the Governor’s mansion.

State law requires purchases over $1,000 to be competitively bid. None of the purchases reviewed by KyCIR were greater than $1,000.

Much of the holiday greenery comes from Deibel's Greenhouse on the far east side of Louisville, the records show.

Robert H. Deibel, the owner, said he sells several varieties of poinsettias — with names like Christmas Feelings Red and Premium White — to the statehouse each year for the winter holiday season.

“Their order’s very consistent,” he said.

When there’s an inauguration, though — like this year — Deibel said the order grows.

In winter 2019, when Gov. Beshear’s first inauguration took place, the order from Deibel’s Greenhouse included nearly 1,200 poinsettias. In contrast, last year’s order was nearly half of that — just 678 poinsettias.

And don’t forget the tree.

Spending records show that in 2021 and 2022 state officials paid $850, collectively, to Laurel Nursery in Corbin for a 25 foot tall Norway Spruce.

Horticulture of the holidays

At Deibel’s Greenhouses, the old, glass greenhouses are filled with rows and rows of red, white and multicolor poinsettias. A family business in operation since 1924, Deibel said his grandfather moved to the current location when the Watterson Expressway was built.

In addition to the state capitol, Deibel said he sells poinsettias to Costcos around the state and local churches.

Poinsettias are a popular Christmas flower — but they’re native to Mexico, according to a publication from the University of Kentucky’s Department of Horticulture. The plant was brought up to South Carolina by amateur botanist and the first American Ambassador to Mexico — and the flower’s namesake — Joel Robert Poinsett in 1825.

Poinsett’s history as a slave owner and as someone who oversaw the forced removal of Native Americans, including on the “Trail of Tears,” has led some to stop using the name poinsettia for the red tropical plant. Another name for the flower is cuetlaxochitl (kwet-la-SHO-sheet) from the Nahuatl-speaking communities in Mexico, according to reporting by the AP. Cuetlaxochitl translates to “flower that withers.”

Deibel said the key to the flower’s bloom is light.

“They are a tropical flower that just happens to turn red in bloom at the day length of Christmas,” Deibel said. “They like short days. It's not temperature. It's not anything other than light that makes that plant turn red.”

The actual bloom isn’t the iconic red, white, pink or bright green part, he said. It’s the little yellow bit in the center of each “flower.” The colored part is just leaves that react, Deibel said.

“The biggest input into growing a poinsettia is heat and making sure you don't have exterior ambient lights,” Deibel said. “If you try to grow one in your house, a TV can mess it up.”

On the road beside Deibel’s Greenhouse, there are no streetlights. When the library nearby put up a floodlight in their parking lot, Deibel said they asked for it to be adjusted away from their greenhouses so it wouldn’t impact the flowers. The door window on one side of the greenhouse office is covered with black plastic so the plants nearest to the window aren’t impacted by work days that start earlier than the plants are ready for light.

To keep a healthy and growing poinsettia at home, Deibel said to keep it away from freezing temperatures and in a spare room where the window gets mostly natural sunlight.

Another thing that flourishes in Kentucky with adequate sunlight is the state’s open records law.

Kentucky has a series of open records and open meetings laws that allow anyone to request records that can reveal insight on a range of government functions dealing with local landlords, the residential child care system, disaster recovery efforts and even Christmas decor spending.

Investigative Reporter Lily Burris is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email Lily at lburris@lpm.org.