Kentucky state Capitol

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky lawmakers took the first step Wednesday toward limiting the governor’s ability to select a Transportation Secretary, advancing a bill that sponsors say would take politics out of road building.

The governor now has the latitude to appoint the head of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, as he or she does for most top cabinet posts. Gov. Andy Beshear named former Lexington mayor Jim Gray; former Gov. Matt Bevin selected Greg Thomas, a retired Louisville Gas & Electric Co. executive.

But Senate Bill 4 would change that approach. It would establish the new Kentucky Transportation Board, a nine-member panel made up of citizens recommended 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, who in turn would conduct their own search for candidates for Transportation Cabinet Secretary. The governor would have to name a secretary from three candidates put forth by the board.

The board also would develop the first draft of the highway plans that guide short- and long-term road spending priorities across Kentucky.

The bill cleared the Senate Transportation Committee on an 8-3 vote. Sen. Jimmy Higdon, Senate President Robert Stivers and Senate Transportation Committee chair Ernie Harris are its sponsors.

The bill’s Republican backers insist they aren’t targeting the current governor, noting the measure was introduced last November before the outcome of the race between Beshear and Bevin was known.

“From the outside looking in, it can seem that I filed a political bill. But it’s not,” Higdon said. “It’s a bill to improve the process, to make the process transparent. … My motives are genuine.”

Higdon said the measure is an effort to take politics out of road building and is modeled after the approach of other states, such as Virginia, that attempt to insulate politics from transportation policy.

The bill also requires an “objective and quantifiable analysis” of projects to be put into the highway plan

Beshear told reporters several hours after the vote that the bill would strip him of the authority held by his predecessors, including Republicans Bevin and Ernie Fletcher, and create a Transportation Cabinet “run by committee.”

He also said he’s concerned about the influence of the groups that would propose board members under the bill.

“Those that will propose names have an interest in the Transportation Cabinet, whether it is a county wanting a project or members of the Chamber of Commerce that may be in this industry,” he said. “Senate Bill 4 is not a good bill.”

The Senate didn’t vote on the bill Wednesday, but Harris said he expects a vote in the coming days.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Stivers said the bill is in response to governors of both parties who have used road spending as political leverage over lawmakers, including Republican Gov. Louie Nunn and Democrats Brereton Jones and Paul Patton.

He also accused Bevin’s administration of hoarding two to three years’ worth of discretionary road money during his final months in office, when he was running for reelection.

“It was not done towards this current governor. It was not done towards the former governor,” Stivers said. “It was done towards the institution of the governor’s office that for so long has weaponized and politicized the Transportation Cabinet.”

But Democrat Sen. Morgan McGarvey of Louisville said the bill simply moves transportation politics from the governor’s office to the Senate and gives the chamber “control over the road fund.”

“While the process might not be perfect, I don’t see why transferring those imperfections to the legislature is going to help,” he said.

Higdon said during the committee meeting that he has strengthened the ethics rules for board members, making them subject to the state executive branch ethics code and requiring them to have no interest in a contract awarded by the cabinet while they’re serving and up to two years after their post ends.

Other changes ensure that three members of the Kentucky Transportation Board would be selected from each nominating organization; there would be one member from each of the state's six Congressional districts; and no more than two members could live in the same district.

Beshear has introduced his two-year highway spending plan, which lawmakers are now reviewing. 

The governor suggested that Senate Bill 4 bill is an impediment to talks over raising Kentucky’s gas tax. Legislation hasn’t been filed to increase the 26-cent-per gallon tax that supports the state’s road fund.

“I believe that any discussion on how to address our Transportation Cabinet budget is harmed significantly by movement on Senate Bill 4,” Beshear said.

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

If approved by the Republican-controlled legislature, the bill would take effect in July. Since the Transportation Board members also need Senate approval, the earliest they could be confirmed would be next winter.

That means any movement to replace – or keep – Gray as Transportation Secretary would not occur until 2021.

Higdon said nothing in the legislation would prevent the board from recommending a current secretary as a candidate.

Sen. Gerald Neal, a Louisville Democrat, said he is concerned that the bill is a “radical departure” from powers rightly vested in the governor. He was one of the three votes in opposition.

“I’m very concerned about this direction,” he said.

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