KY Senate Chamber

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – State Senate leaders are backing a bill that would limit the governor’s power to name a Kentucky Transportation Cabinet secretary, essentially shifting that role to a citizen board nominated by influential business and government groups.

The newly created board would develop the first draft of the state’s two-year road budget and base it on an “objective scoring system.” The governor’s administration now creates the plan sent to legislators.

Among other duties, the nine-member Kentucky Transportation Board would compile a list of candidates for Transportation Secretary, then send the names to the governor. He or she would choose from that list.

The bill also would make the Transportation Secretary subject to Senate confirmation – the only cabinet leader in a governor’s administration with that requirement.

The measure is sponsored by three Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature – Sen. Jimmy Higdon; vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee; committee chair Sen. Ernie Harris; and Senate President Robert Stivers. It was prefiled on Nov. 5, the day Democratic Gov.-elect Andy Beshear defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

Higdon said the timing was coincidental. “It’s not directed at (anyone),” he said. “We had no idea who the governor would be when that was filed.”

Instead, he said the proposal is an effort to insulate the state's transportation spending process from the politics that for years have held sway over road projects. It's modelled after a similar approach in Virginia, where an independent board oversees transportation projects, he added.

A governor still would have some influence over the Kentucky board’s makeup. But first, the Kentucky Association of Counties, the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce would nominate one person from each of the state’s six Congressional districts as potential members, as well as three at-large candidates.

The governor then would appoint the nine members from the list of candidates, with no more than five board members of the same political party. Louisville’s Congressional district would have one member; the bill would also require that one of the at-large members represent an area with more than 50,000 people.

The Senate would ultimately confirm the board members.

To qualify as a member, citizens would need five years of experience in “transportation, construction, finance, law, environmental issues, management, or engineering,” the bill says. No one with a financial interest in any Transportation Cabinet contract could serve on the board.

The board would prioritize projects for the two key documents that govern how Kentucky spends transportation dollars: The two-year road construction budget and a six-year plan meant to gauge priorities in the years ahead.

Higdon said that system would effectively mirror a Transportation Cabinet program called SHIFT, which uses a formula to rank projects that   based on factors that include safety, congestion and economic development. There are 17 Louisville-area projects on the list for lawmakers to consider when they start meeting in January.

“Everybody has input into SHIFT,” Higdon said. “It starts at the local level and makes its way up to the Department of Transportation and over to the General Assembly. The bill puts SHIFT into statute. It etches that into stone now.”

Louisville transportation advocate Jackie Cobb said the bill gives “exceptional amount of power” to the three lobbying organizations. All three were among the top 10 spenders seeking to influence Kentucky lawmakers during the first half of the year, according to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.

Among other concerns, Cobb questioned whether the proposed board would have adequate representation from urban areas. And she noted that the criteria the board would use to rank projects “glaringly omits environmental impact.”

“That -- on its own -- should make this legislation disqualifying,” she said in an email.

The board would determine the qualifications for Transportation Secretary, oversee the search for candidates and choose three to send to the governor. The governor then could select one of those candidates, or ask the board to submit three new people from which to choose.

Higdon said that approach is similar to how the Kentucky Economic Development Partnership board selects the secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. However, the governor also serves on the board that recommends candidates for that office.

“We’ve tried to take some of the politics out of those positions by having an independent board that hires and fires,” he said.

But the proposed bill raises questions about the legislature’s potential role in confirming a position like a cabinet secretary, regardless of which party controls the governor’s mansion, said Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Louisville Democrat and Senate Minority Floor Leader.

“The cabinet secretaries are part of the executive branch, and they report to the executive branch and not the legislative branch,” McGarvey said.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has pushed for a state gas-tax increase and additional transportation funding. Ashli Watts, the chamber’s president and CEO, said she believes the Senate bill would couple well with broader infrastructure legislation.

“We appreciate being at the table and having a voice in infrastructure, which is critical to any kind of business or economic development,” she said.

Reach reporter Marcus Green at 502-585-0825, mgreen@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2019 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.