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Kentucky Legislature Passes Massive Road Construction Plan

Thu April 26, 2012 - Midwest Edition

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) A massive road construction plan received final passage in the Kentucky General Assembly on April 12, paving the way for more than 1,000 projects political leaders say will provide a needed economic boost as the state recovers from recession.

The House passed the two-part, $10 billion initiative on the final day of this year’s legislative session. That includes $4.5 billion worth of projects that would be constructed over the next two years.

But the entire plan was put into jeopardy when lawmakers adjourned without passing a transportation budget to fund the projects. Gov. Steve Beshear said he would call lawmakers back into special session to finish work on the transportation budget.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, said the proposal includes the state’s single largest project: $2.6 billion for two bridges across the Ohio River in Louisville. Harris said the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-led Senate agreed that project is a top priority.

The road construction plan also includes $200 million to widen the heavily traveled Interstate 65, where numerous fatal traffic crashes have occurred in recent years. A crash on a rural stretch of the highway near Munfordville in 2010 killed 11 people, 10 of them members of a Mennonite family.

Beshear said the highway plan will not only improve the state’s transportation infrastructure but also will boost the economy.

“The Louisville bridges project is going to employ thousands of people over the next six, eight, 10 years,” he said. “All of the different projects that are in there will put people to work. That money will then flow through our economy and be turned over many times through our retail establishments. So, it really is job creator.”

The Senate had passed the plan without opposition. But in the House, a bloc of Republicans and a lone Democrat voted against it, complaining that the initiative had been developed in private discussions and that it approves tolls to help pay for the Louisville bridges.

House Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover delivered a scathing floor speech that criticized the secretive nature of negotiations that led to the appropriations measure.

“We must change the way we conduct business,” he said.

In years past, legislative leaders have developed spending plans behind closed doors with shades down, hallways roped off and state troopers standing guard. But in March, they openly negotiated an executive branch budget with cameras from the public television station KET running throughout the proceedings. Open government advocates had hoped that signaled the end of the old way of doing the public’s business.

In passing an open meetings law decades ago, Kentucky lawmakers excluded themselves from its provisions. And House and Senate leaders have traditionally used that exclusion to its fullest, shutting themselves away to decide how to divvy up the public’s money. They reverted to their old ways on the highway appropriations measures.

A handful of negotiators for the House and Senate secretly worked out details on hundreds of relatively small road and bridge projects. Those negotiations ended shortly after 2 a.m. April 12.

“I would say, yes, it was tough negotiations,” Harris said.

But Hoover charged that the committee appointed to work out differences between House and Senate road plans didn’t meet, and that the proposals were meshed without input from the full committee.

Budgeting has been one of the more time-consuming chores this year for Kentucky lawmakers, who passed the $19 billion state government operating budget in late March.

A slow economic rebound led to a lean state budget that forces sharp cuts on most government agencies, leaves employees without pay raises again and erases a planned cost-of-living increase from the monthly pension checks of retirees.

The measure calls for 8.4 percent cuts to most government agencies and programs because of lingering financial woes brought on by the recession. Those cuts will account for nearly $300 million in savings.

The latest budget will be especially difficult for agencies that have already cut spending by more than 30 percent over the past four years.

Gov. Beshear, a Democrat, used his line-item veto power to strike some provisions lawmakers had tucked into the budget, including $200,000 for an actors’ guild, $300,000 for a mystery writers’ festival and a handful of other earmarks.

Lawmakers scraped up funding for some high-priority projects, including $2.5 million to begin design work on a proposed renovation of Rupp Arena, home of the University of Kentucky basketball team. They also agreed to pony up $3.5 million for improvements at the Kentucky Horse Park north of Lexington.

Lawmakers also passed Beshear’s tax amnesty plan that he believes could collect a badly needed $55 million over the next two years. It would be the state’s first offer of tax amnesty in a decade, and would forgive some penalties if people come forward and pay their taxes.

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