BETWEEN THE AISLES: Budget, road projects bring out differences in chambers

Senate expected to present its spending plan Monday

By Kevin Wheatley, Published:

Fundamental differences between the Democrat-led House and GOP-led Senate are easy to spot for those who follow the legislative process, but distinctions take center stage as the chambers draft the biennial budget and road plan.

The sides failed to come to an agreement on both the executive branch’s two-year budget and six-year road plan in 2010, and two years later, they again couldn’t pass a road plan. Each time, lawmakers returned to Frankfort for a special session, costing taxpayers about $60,000 per day.

The Senate is expected to present its version of the 2014-15, $20.3 billion state budget 2 p.m. today in a committee meeting, then take a vote after the chamber convenes at 3 p.m., Senate President Robert Stivers said Friday.

While lawmakers will have more than enough to discuss at the negotiating table with the budget, road projects have proven an equal stumbling block in recent history. 

The House passed the Biennial Highway Construction Plan 51-43 Tuesday, largely along party lines with a number of Republicans crying foul on the amount of projects cut from their districts. 

Rep. Leslie Combs, who chaired the subcommittee that revised Gov. Steve Beshear’s list of approved transportation projects in the biennium, said Tuesday the governor’s plan was “over programmed,” meaning the projects included in Beshear’s proposal did not match anticipated revenues. 

The House ultimately reduced approved state projects in the biennium by $1.2 billion and state-supported bond projects by $92 million.

Stivers, R-Manchester, said senators are still “digesting” the plan. State-funded projects cut from Beshear’s proposal in Senate District 25, which Stivers represents, total $153.3 million. The bulk of those removed — $96.3 million — came from Clay County, where Manchester is the county seat. 

Stivers said he had yet to review specifics of the construction plan, but he alluded to potentially thorny negotiations ahead.

“I know that talking to Rep. (Sannie) Overly, she told me I would have the opportunity to put some of my counties’ road projects back in, and I thought she might have the ability to put some of hers back in when we get to conference committee,” he said. 

A $22.6 million project to reconstruct Interstate 75 to the Mountain Parkway in Lee County was cut from Stivers’ district, as was $2 million to develop a toll collection plan for the parkway’s improvement. Another widening for the Mountain Parkway in Wolfe County was halved to $5 million in the biennial construction plan, which included $129 million in cuts for parkway projects as the House hopes to extend construction four years and avoid charging tolls.

“We’ve waited 50 years, we can make it a couple more,” Combs, D-Pikeville, said Tuesday of the House extending Beshear’s parkway improvement plan four years.

Stiver’s district could also provide a lesson in ensuring a bill passes. The House left Knox County’s highway construction budget untouched from Beshear’s proposal, but the county’s $15.9 million in budgeted projects includes three additional projects totaling $707,000.

Rep. Jim Stewart, R-Flat Lick, proved the deciding vote in getting the bill passed by a constitutional majority of 51 as three Democrats in the 54-member caucus did not vote and another, Rep. Rick Nelson of Middlesboro, voted “no.” 

Another area of contention is the proposed raising of the gasoline tax “floor” to 32.3 cents per gallon, a 1.5 cent increase. House leaders have said the increase will not affect the price of gas, but set the tax rate at its level Dec. 31. They also factor the anticipated revenue generated in the biennial construction plan and six-year road plan.

The Republican Party of Kentucky has responded by sending automated calls against the proposed budget and gas tax floor increase in contested House districts, as RPK Chairman Steve Robertson confirmed last week.

Stivers said the Senate GOP caucus hasn’t discussed the proposal lately, “but I can tell you this: We’re not going to be raising any gas taxes.”

“I find it kind of interesting. That’s the second tax they’ve passed this session, so they’re all about taxing and we’re all about cutting waste and reducing the size of government without losing our ability to have an efficient and effective government,” he said.

Stivers remains unconvinced that raising the gas tax floor would help the state’s road fund. A lower rate might spur fuel sales, he said. 

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Friday that would be true — “If you didn’t see the price gouging and the profiteering that’s going on right now by the big oil companies with the price of gasoline.”

“There’s absolutely no reason that the price of gasoline has inexplicably raised 20 to 30 cents at the retail level in the past three or four months,” he said.

The extra penny and a half on each gallon of gasoline proposed in House Bill 445 would help Kentucky’s transportation needs rather than an oil company’s bank account, Stumbo said.

“People want, I think, decent roads,” he said.

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