Kentucky Senate

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In a party-line vote, the Kentucky Senate approved a bill Thursday that would largely shift the power to name the state’s transportation secretary from the governor to an unelected board.

Senate Bill 4 cleared the chamber on a 25-8 vote. No Republicans voted against the GOP-sponsored bill; no Democrats voted for it.

The legislation would establish a new Kentucky Transportation Board, a nine-member group of citizens nominated by three powerful civic and business groups: the Kentucky League of Cities, Kentucky Association of Counties and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

The governor would choose the board members. But the board would lead a search for candidates for Transportation Cabinet secretary and send its recommendations to the governor, who would have to choose from the board’s short list.

The board also would develop the initial highway plans that guide road spending in Kentucky.

The bill’s Republican backers claim they are trying to take politics out of state road spending, letting an independent board use data to craft maintenance and new construction priorities. Other states, such as Virginia, have similar boards.

GOP supporters have claimed the measure doesn't target Democratic Gog. Andy Beshear, but the governor has said the bill is complicating discussions over raising new revenue for transportation, including a gas tax increase. 

If the bill becomes law, a board could oust Beshear's transportation secretary, Jim Gray, and replace him as early as next year — or it could choose to keep him.

Senate President Robert Stivers, who co-sponsored the bill, said in a floor speech that every administration he’s served alongside has made “purely political” decisions about road spending. Lead sponsor Sen. Jimmy Higdon, a Republican from Lebanon, said it “adds accountability and transparency.”

But Sen. Julian Carroll, a former Kentucky governor and Democrat from Frankfort, argued that the bill doesn’t change the politics surrounding road projects because legislators — and not the Kentucky Transportation Board — ultimately approve the road plan.

“This body is already making the decision of what roads will be funded and for what purpose,” Carroll said.

Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, said lawmakers are “diffusing” accountability and simply shifting the inevitable politics that will occur.

The bill was amended to require that the transportation board’s membership reflect Kentucky’s racial and gender makeup. That push came from Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville.

The measure now heads to the House, where it’s expected to face more scrutiny.

Reach reporter Marcus Green at 502-585-0825, mgreen@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2020 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.