Public-private partnership legislation passes House; veto threat over tolling amendment avoided

02/25/2015 08:21 PM

FRANKFORT — Legislation that would allow the state to pursue agreements with private industry in capital projects cleared the House 84-13 Wednesday, and lawmakers resoundingly defeated a floor amendment that doomed a similar bill last year.

House Bill 443 — the public-private partnership, or P3, bill sponsored by Rep. Leslie Combs — now heads to the Senate, which joined the House in sending last year’s public-private partnership bill to Gov. Steve Beshear’s desk. But Beshear vetoed that legislation, pointing to an amendment specifically barring tolls to finance projects connecting Kentucky and Ohio.

Rep. Arnold Simpson made no apologies for last year’s floor amendment, citing his opposition to funding the Brent Spence Bridge project in Covington through tolls. He called the practice “an abomination.”

This year, however, legislators handily rejected the proposal 22-66 despite Simpson’s impassioned pleas for support. Still, he earned a standing ovation when he compared his region’s need for a voice in developing a construction financing plan to the American colonists’ rebellion against the British Empire.

“Who’s going to pay for the bridge in large measure? We are,” Simpson, D-Covington, said, referring to northern Kentuckians. “That’s not fair.”

Combs repeatedly urged her colleagues to defeat nearly all of Simpson’s six floor amendments, remaining neutral on one.

She reminded lawmakers that Beshear vetoed last year’s bill specifically because of Simpson’s anti-toll amendment, and she noted that HB 443 has a specific provision that the General Assembly approve any projects between Kentucky and Ohio in order to appease northern Kentucky lawmakers concerned about the Brent Spence project.

What’s more, the consequences of banning tolls could be dire for the state’s road fund, she said.

“Mega projects whose costs are not offset by tolls will use such a large portion of available road fund dollars that other projects throughout the state will not be built,” Combs said. “So if you vote for this, then everything else across the state will be in jeopardy.”

House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Sannie Overly called the tolling proposal a “false issue” and “a red herring” because the bill does not address tolls at all.

Simpson had success with three of his proposals, though not his amendment banning tolls. HB 443 now mandates that tolls expire on public-private projects worth more than $100 million once initial construction debts are paid; allows bi-state authorities to enter public-private contracts; and requires cost-benefit analyses before projects begin.

HB 443 would also allow the Finance and Administration Cabinet to draft regulations on the ventures, which would be available to private entities through competitive bidding, by Dec. 31. The General Assembly would have to approve projects costing $10 million or more, and all public-private partnership contracts would be reviewed by the Government Contract Review Committee, according to the legislation.

Beshear, who spoke to reporters before the vote on HB 443, said he would have uncapped his veto pen again if the provision barring tolls on the Kentucky-Ohio project reached his desk this year.

The Democratic governor noted the bill specifically states the legislature must approve any projects connecting Kentucky and Ohio.

“If it passes in that form, certainly I’ll sign it,” Beshear said. “I think we need it, but if they put some amendment on it that just prohibits even the consideration of tolls, I’ll veto it again.”

Pure Politics reporter Don Weber contributed to this report.


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