FRANKFORT -- Legislation to take much of the governor's power to decide which highway projects are built and placed into the hands of a nine-member board passed its first legislative hurdle on Wednesday.
Under the measure, sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, the Kentucky Transportation Board would consist of people nominated by three organizations -- Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Kentucky League of Cities and Kentucky Association of Counties, Higdon said.
Any project proposal would have a score, based on five factors: congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety and asset management.
"The board would review the scores and make that public," he said. "It would also make public its recommended road plan. And as they send that to the General Assembly, if a legislator changes that, they better be ready to explain why they differ from the board."
Higdon said while it's impossible to remove all politics from the road plan process, he wants to eliminate what he can. He cited the last few months of the Bevin administration as an example of the political process he wishes to remove.
"There's $30 million a year in discretionary money given to the governor. When you see a governor save a large portion of that to an election year, one might question the motives," he said
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, a co-sponsor of the bill, says governors of both parties have engaged in politics when it comes to road projects. "Then Senate President David Williams had a Ky.-92 project removed from his district, after it had been bid and let. The state paid $5 million in liquidated damages to the contractor for pulling that road."
The proposed Kentucky Transportation Board would also submit three nominees for the Transportation Cabinet Secretary to the governor from which to choose. The board would have sole power to remove the secretary.
Higdon said the process is similar to how Kentucky's Economic Development Secretary has been chosen for nearly 30 years. "The board would set the qualifications of the secretary, conduct the search, before submitting the list of candidates to the governor."
The secretary and the nine board members would serve subject to confirmation by the Senate.
In addition to developing a six-year road plan every two years, the board would also publish annually a prioritized list of bridges and pavement improvement needs, based on safety and state of disrepair.
The bill carries the designation of Senate Bill 4, the low number indicating it is a priority of the chamber.
Gov. Andy Beshear opposes the measure, according to a statement issued by Crystal Staley, his communications director:
"SB 4 would strip Gov. Beshear of authority that has been held by every previous governor of both parties, including Governors (Matt) Bevin and (Ernie) Fletcher, and would create a transportation cabinet effectively run by committee. There is significant private and public opposition to SB 4. Gov. Beshear is trying to build a new tone of cooperation and good faith. SB 4 makes that difficult."
The bill passed the committee, with Republican C. B. Embry of Morgantown and Democrats Gerald Neal of Louisville and Johnny Ray Turner of Prestonsburg, casting "no" votes.
It now heads to the Senate floor.