Public-private partnership bill clears House budget committee, prepped for floor vote

02/09/2016 05:02 PM

FRANKFORT — Legislation that would authorize the use of public-private partnerships cleared the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee on an 18-4 vote on Tuesday.

The bill has been a pet issue for Rep. Leslie Combs in recent years, and after announcing her retirement from the House last month, this year will be her last shot at shepherding the legislation into law.

And after twice failing to become law in 2014 and 2015 thanks in part to opposition against tolling on reconstruction of the Brent Spence Bridge, Combs says she hopes this year’s version, House Bill 309, will pass the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Matt Bevin.

In fact, Combs said she didn’t even want to hear the bridge’s name during today’s meeting.

“I want to make this statement right now before we go any further,” said Combs, D-Pikeville. “It excludes — I said it does not include — anything to do with a project in northern Kentucky, therefore I do not wish to hear its name. I do not wish to have a discussion about it because it has nothing to do with that project in northern Kentucky.”

HB 309 would allow government to complete large-scale projects with help from private industry. Projects worth more than $25 million would be appropriated by the General Assembly, according to the bill.

One concern of P-3 legislation raised in a recent Lexington Herald-Leader editorial, and echoed by some on the panel, involved the use of public-private partnerships by local governments.

Local governments are only required to report to the Finance and Administration Cabinet such financing arrangements on projects that cost at least 30 percent of the municipality’s revenue, according to the bill.

“I know you’re here to protect the cities and you do an excellent job, but you might have a belief in the competency of these people that’s stronger than mine,” Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, said to J.D. Chaney, deputy executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities.

“And I’m not criticizing them, but what I’m saying is that because they are citizen public servants and they don’t have the expertise of a strong staff and accessibility to a lot of information the way people in metro Louisville have or (Lexington) Mayor (Jim) Gray has or somebody like that, it’s a lot different.”

Combs says there are enough safeguards for tax dollars and taxpayers in the bill.

“I think local governments right now today need this legislation, need this tool in the toolkit more than any other level of government right now because of the major constraints they have on them,” she said.

“The major infrastructure needs that a lot of our local governments have and our local communities have, but I am here to tell you first and foremost I do not want to be a part of any legislation that would hurt our communities or put them in a bad financial situation.”

Rep. Arnold Simpson has been among the most critical against public-private partnerships and what those could mean for tolling on the Brent Spence Bridge.

He was among the four who voted against House Bill 309, saying the legislation would create winners and losers in infrastructure projects.

He also added that many have said a new span between northern Kentucky and Cincinnati would require tolls despite his objections to that funding method.

“In this bill as it relates to large transportation projects, you have winners and losers,” said Simpson, D-Covington. “Now we’re protected by this no-toll language, but notwithstanding the protection, we’re probably precluded from finding an avenue of replacing our bridge because I’ve heard it said time and time out, ‘If you want a bridge replaced, you have to pay tolls in addition to other funds that we’re advancing.’”

The legislation now moves on to the full House for consideration, where it’s passed in recent sessions.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo said he’s hopeful of HB 309’s prospects this year.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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