Bill addresses transportation secretary hiring

Legislation to reroute the governor’s sole power to pick Kentucky’s transportation secretary advanced out of a state Senate committee today.

“One of the purposes behind this is, as much as possible, to take the politics out of road building,” Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Prospect, said while explaining his support of the measure, known as Senate Bill 4. He added there are many examples of governors from both parties holding sway over road projects to advance personal political agendas.

SB 4, as amended in committee, would do this by establishing the Kentucky Transportation Board. The board would be responsible for submitting a list of transportation secretary candidates from which the governor would have to choose. The governor’s choice would also have to be confirmed by the Senate.

Kentucky is one of only nine states where the governor can currently appoint the leader of the transportation department with no legislative involvement, said Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, a primary sponsor of SB 4. In most states, the leader has to be approved by the legislature.

The board would also have several duties as related to the development of the state’s six-year road plan, Higdon said. SB 4 would codify a process already in place to use traffic data and other objective measurements to prioritize road projects being considered for funding in the state highway plan. Higdon emphasized that the bill would not change legislators’ role in the final selection of road projects and the appropriation of funds.

The board would consist of nine voting members appointed by the governor from nominations submitted from the state’s League of Cities, Association of Counties and Chamber of Commerce. To ensure each organization is represented equally on the board, the governor would have to appoint three nominees from each of the organizations.

Board members would have to adhere to the executive branch’s code of ethics and have no financial interest in any contract awarded by the Transportation Cabinet up to two years after they leave the board.

Sen. Gerald A. Neal, D-Louisville, explained his “no” vote in committee. He said SB 4 appeared, on the surface, to be “politically motivated,” but he would continue to study the measure.

“This is a radical departure from what I would think would be the proper way to approach this,” Neal said. “It seems to me like it is putting the fox in the henhouse.”

Harris pointed out that the bill was prefiled on Election Day – before the outcome of the governor’s race was known.

“From the outside looking in, it could seem I filed a political bill, but it is not,” Higdon said. “It is a bill to improve the process, to make the process transparent, to give people input into this process. My motives are genuine.”

Higdon said the approach to pick a transportation secretary would be similar to how the Kentucky Economic Development Partnership Board has selected the state Economic Development Secretary for nearly three decades.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, said the provision of SB 4 concerning the selection of transportation secretary was not unprecedented. He said the General Assembly passed a similar law in 1927 during the administration of Gov. Flem D. Sampson.

SB 4 now goes to the full Senate for its consideration.