FRANKFORT — In a move of cooperation that also revealed lingering mistrust among state leaders, the House and Senate took the rare step Friday of approving two key road construction bills simultaneously to avoid a political game of chicken.
House lawmakers signed off on legislation outlining $3.7 billion worth of road projects at roughly the same time the Senate passed a bill that would stop the state's gas tax rate from dropping, a move that will help pay for some of those roads.
All the while, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, were talking via their intra-Capitol phones to monitor the other chamber's actions.
That bit of synchronized legislating capped a hectic 28th workday of the 30-day General Assembly session. Williams and Stumbo, in his first term as speaker, have led their respective chambers to deals on several major and complex pieces of legislation.
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The legislature has approved a fix to a $456 million budget shortfall that included cuts to agencies, along with increases on cigarette and alcohol taxes, a reform of the student testing system and now a mega road plan.
But even with two consummate deal makers and political strategists at the helms of their chambers, memories remained of broken-down negotiations and last-minute flare-ups that plagued the legislature during waning hours of past sessions.
"There's still a little bit of distrust between the chambers, but we're doing better," Stumbo said. "We play in the sandbox better now."
Thus, Stumbo, Willliams and Gov. Steve Beshear devised the scheme Friday afternoon of having both chambers take votes on the road project measures at the same time, to avoid what seemed earlier in the day to be a stalemate.
House leaders had said they were reluctant to give final approval to the full list of road projects until the Senate approved the gas-tax freeze to help pay for it. Williams, meanwhile, said Friday morning he wanted to wait on approving the gas-tax measure to make sure the governor didn't get carried away with his line-item veto pen on the bill containing the projects.
Four pennies are slated to come off the gas tax April 1 because of the drop in wholesale gasoline prices. Each penny generates about $32 million for the Road Fund.
About half of the money from those pennies goes to local government, and lawmakers have pegged much of the state's share of the funds to cover bond payments for about $350 million worth of construction projects in the road bill.
Although the total wish list of road projects lawmakers outlined in House Bill 330 is $3.7 billion, the state has funding for only roughly $1.2 billion of it. About $367 million of that comes from the recently passed federal stimulus bill.
Throughout the afternoon, Beshear hosted Stumbo, Williams and Democratic Senate Floor Leader Ed Worley, D-Richmond, in his first-floor office to break the political impasse and have the two chambers approve the road bills Friday.
Lawmakers will break for 12 days, which gives Beshear a chance to consider vetoes of any bills. The General Assembly concludes its session March 26 and 27.
In a joint statement from the governor and the legislative leaders, they said delaying a vote on the gas tax bill beyond Friday would "jeopardize our ability to successfully implement" it.
So Beshear pledged not to veto specific road projects from the bill. He told lawmakers he planned to strike one technical provision before signing the measure into law. That was good enough for the legislators to proceed with votes.
Shortly after 5:30 p.m., the House began discussing its final approval of the project bill, which passed 87-3. Across the hall, the Senate approved the gas-tax freeze 30-7.
House Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook said the influx of road construction projects come at a crucial point in the ever-deepening recession.
"You're doing more than taking back a project to your district, you're truly doing what we need to be doing across this country, and that is passing legislation that is putting money — millions of dollars of taxpayers' money — back into this economy to create jobs," Adkins told House members.
Fayette County is scheduled to get $125 million over the next two years under the proposal. That will include $11 million for the Newtown Pike extension and $10.3 million for improvements at and near the Kentucky Horse Park in preparation for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
A trial run on road money
This also represented the trial run of a process for how state leaders approve road spending — a point of contention last year that prompted Williams to sue Beshear over the administration's handling of projects.
At issue was who got the final say in which projects got funded: the legislature that drew up the road bill, or the administration, which manages the construction contracts and doles out the cash.
Earlier this session, lawmakers and Beshear struck an accord to establish a process in which the General Assembly draws up a two-year road plan, a six-year-road plan and a Transportation Cabinet budget. The governor can still use his veto power. But under that process, lawmakers have a better idea of the status of projects in their districts and can aim to approve the bills in enough time to override any vetoes.
"We, as a legislature, appropriate and designate projects. That's what our job is," Williams told reporters at a morning press conference.
While it wasn't always pretty, the General Assembly had a "historic" 30-day session by successfully passing several sweeping pieces of legislation, Stumbo said.
And in separate floor speeches over the last two days, Adkins, Worley and Senate Republican Floor Leader Dan Kelly of Springfield all praised the General Assembly and its partisan leaders for working together.
"You've done good work, and you've done it for the people of this commonwealth," Adkins told lawmakers.
Stumbo said it all came down to everyone honoring their words.
"Everybody did what they said they were going to do and if we couldn't do it, we said so upfront," Stumbo told reporters. "It was a good working relationship. Good people can disagree and not be disrespectful."