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Public-Private Partnerships Touted As Economic Booster

In the 2014 Kentucky General Assembly session, lawmakers passed legislation to allow for public-private partnerships (P3) on state construction projects. But Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed the measure because it banned the use of tolls on northern Kentucky’s ragged Brent Spence Bridge.

P3 legislation is back again this year with House Bill 443 sponsored by Rep. Leslie Combs (D-Pikeville). The measure would allow state agencies to enter into agreements with private companies to build, finance, or operate projects and fill transportation needs. This year’s version doesn’t contain the toll ban, nor does it apply to local governments.

Combs denied the P3 bill is about tolls or even one particular bridge project. She argued that collaborations permitted under the legislation can result in projects and services that government can’t do alone. Combs also said the P3 plan could infuse life back into her county, which has lost thousands of coal-related jobs.

In reviewing the language in the bill, Rep. Jim Wayne (D-Louisville) questioned the measure’s lack of clarity around Open Records and sunshine laws, whether labor standards are addressed, and how public-private arrangements would be justified. He said that government and private business collaborations are often driven by conflicting motives.

Wayne added that he’s convinced tolling will eventually result from the P3 legislation.

Amendments Seek to Address Tolling Concerns

Rep. Arnold Simpson (D-Covington) has been unrelenting in his quest to ensure the P3 measure would not be a gateway for tolling on the Brent Spence Bridge to Cincinnati. He successfully argued for several amendments to HB 443. Those amendments would require any tolls to expire after a highway is built and paid for; mandate a cost-benefit analysis for projects costing $100 million or more; and create a bi-state authority that Arnold said would put northern Kentucky on par with Jefferson County.

Rep. Combs urged defeat of Simpson’s bi-state amendment. She said it could give another state more authority over the project. Despite her objections, the amendment was approved by a slim margin of 46 – 44.

But Simpson faced defeat when he revisited the notion of banning tolls on any interstate project between Kentucky and Ohio. He argued that the federal government is shrugging its responsibility to maintain a safe infrastructure system and Kentucky taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pick up the slack.

Combs countered by saying an anti-tolling amendment is what caused Gov. Beshear to veto the P3 bill last year. House Majority Caucus Chair Sannie Overly (D-Paris) agreed with Combs and denounced Simpson’s issue as a red herring. Overly, who is a candidate for lieutenant governor with Attorney General Jack Conway, maintained that nothing in the P3 legislation discusses tolling.

Another northern Kentucky lawmaker, Rep. Diane St. Onge (R- Lakeside Park), said she fears a future General Assembly would run roughshod over the will of local communities that rely on the Brent Spence Bridge if the P3 legislation passes without a tolling prohibition.

The Northern Kentucky delegation was denied their request and Rep. Simpson’s floor amendment to ban tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge was soundly defeated with only 22 votes in favor and 66 opposing it. The other embellishments remained and the House approved the P3 bill on a 84 – 13 vote.

Follow @ReneeKET on Twitter for updates throughout the day, and for a recap of the full day’s activities, watch Legislative Update, weeknights at 11 on KET. You can also follow the Kentucky General Assembly on KET’s Legislative Coverage app for your smartphone or tablet.