FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A bill to rein in the governor's power to appoint Kentucky's transportation secretary won initial committee approval from Republican lawmakers Wednesday, but the Democratic chief executive quickly pushed back, saying it would lead to less accountability.
GOP lawmakers insisted the measure wasn't aimed at Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, but instead is meant to remove politics from awarding coveted road projects. They noted that past governors from both parties wielded road funding as leverage to achieve policy priorities.
The measure represents one of the first and most direct challenges by the GOP-led legislature to the new governor as Kentucky enters a new era of divided government. It cleared the Senate Transportation Committee and was sent to the full Senate. The bill would still need House passage if it wins Senate approval.
Beshear pushed back almost immediately, calling the bill “unfortunate." He told reporters that it would strip him of the authority given his predecessors, both Republicans and Democrats. Kentucky governors currently decide who will serve as transportation secretary.
“It's also problematic in that it has less accountability," Beshear said. “As governor, the buck stops with me. If we don't get transportation projects we need done, the people can blame their governor."
Later in the day, Republican Senate President Robert Stivers defended the bill.
“It was not done toward this current governor," Stivers said in a Senate speech. “It was not done toward the former governor. It was done toward the institution of the governor's office, that for so long has weaponized and politicized the Transportation Cabinet."
Stivers said recently that former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin saved tens of millions of dollars in discretionary road project funds to hand out in the months leading up to last year's election.
Under the measure, the governor's choice for transportation secretary would be limited to a list of candidates submitted by a newly created nine-member transportation board. The governor's choice would be subject to confirmation by the Republican-dominated Senate.
Members of the oversight board would be appointed by the governor from a list of nominations submitted by influential business and government groups.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Ernie Harris said the goal is to “take the politics out of road building" as much as possible. He said the bill was unveiled before the outcome of last year's governor's election, which Beshear won by defeating Bevin.
Republican Sen. Jimmy Higdon, the bill's lead sponsor, said it would bring more transparency and public input to transportation policies. The bill would require an “objective, data-driven" process to prioritize road projects, he said. The transportation board would develop the initial draft of the state's road budget. Lawmakers would retain their role in selecting and funding projects.
Beshear expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the proposed process.
“A cabinet run by committee, when over a billion dollars are being spent, that's never worked in business and it won't work in government," the governor told reporters.
The bill calls for the transportation board members to be nominated by the Kentucky Association of Counties, the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce — influential groups that have a strong lobbying presence at the statehouse. Board membership would have a geographical balance with members from across the state.
Beshear also raised concerns about those groups' potential role.
“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," the governor said.
Higdon said if the bill becomes law, the state's current transportation secretary, Jim Gray, would serve until a new secretary is appointed and confirmed by the Senate. That confirmation wouldn't occur until early 2021, he said. Also, Gray could be on the list of nominees submitted to the governor.
The legislation is Senate Bill 4.