March 21, 2012

Bridge to political cover

Days after the adoption of a controversial plan to finance the Ohio River Bridges Project, Kentucky lawmakers were running for cover. The tolling authority they created — predominantly for political distance — was taking a backseat to state agencies that answer to legislators. The backlash had begun without much of a buffer between them and citizens vexed by the specter of tolls for a half century.

So the stage was set for a showdown March 7, when Senate Transportation Committee members heard a presentation on the project by Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock.

Committee Chairman Ernie Harris, R-26, took aim at the tolling plan. “We’re raising a balloon to see how many holes it gets shot in (it), and we can always modify it later … if we come up with some better ideas.”

Hancock awkwardly nodded and murmured, “Yes sir.”

Then Harris, of Crestwood, fired his shot. He had heard an earful from Kentuckiana truckers because “$10 going back and forth across may be very prohibitive for some of our businesses,” he told Sec. Hancock. “You may get some pushback,” he added, appealing for relief from “political pressure” that might “mess up a great plan.”

“We created the authority, the bi-state authority, to make some of those tough decisions … without those of us who would be subject to our constituents saying, ‘Over my dead body,’” Harris said.

The chairman’s comments followed some ominous remarks by Senate President David Williams, who questioned the shrinking role of the Bridges Authority, which lawmakers statutorily mandated to finance and build the bridges. “Why aren’t they doing this project?” he asked. “Then we wouldn’t have the problem of the political intervention on taking tolls up or down.”

In response, Hancock replied, “At this point, there has been no decision made that the bi-state authority won’t continue in some active role.”

Last Thursday, Rep. Jim Wayne, D-35, spoke more pointedly during a meeting of the House Budget Committee: “The state (transportation) authority really cannot approve the financial plan unless we appropriate the money in this bill.”

The sponsor of the bill, Sannie Overly, D-72, clamored to provide political cover. “We are not approving this financial plan,” she said. “We are not required to approve the financial plan.”

Nevertheless, Wayne was so concerned about a consultant’s toll revenue projections that he summoned Hancock to address them.

“Evidently, the revenue changes in this schedule are higher than the traffic volume,” he said. “The second issue is a serious question about what happens in the year 2031, when there’s a jump from a 5.1 percent increase in the revenue to up to 76.2 percent.”

Then Rep. Overly changed the subject. “Mr. Chairman, I think I would say simply as more of a point of order, as the sponsor of the bill, I think all questions probably need to come to me. I can assure you I can’t answer those questions, but I’d like to respond, in part,” to a previous statement.

Wayne followed with a simpler query: “We’d like to consider an exemption from the tolls for people who are living in poverty who have to commute to their jobs in Indiana. Is that something you could support?”

This time, Chairman Rick Rand, D-47, interceded. “You know, I’m not sure the secretary of transportation could or should answer that question.”

It’s a problematic proposition now that a financial plan has been cast and politically preoccupied project partners are clamoring to cover themselves — and one another.

“Tolls are a regressive, horrible tax on the poor,” Wayne said. “The best way to finance this project … is through a more equitable increase in the gasoline tax, and that’s not on the table … So we’re stuck in Jefferson County with this finance plan … that I find offensive” because it hurts “a growing segment of our population.”

Sen. David Givens, R-9, had raised more universal concerns the previous week after seeking assurance that officials weren’t inflating traffic projections to inflate revenue forecasts. “If these projections are wrong, will the state of Kentucky have to back up the money that’s been loaned?” he asked regarding the plan to borrow $730 million via toll revenue bonds. A lengthy answer confirmed that, “Yes, Kentucky is on the hook,” he concluded.