Covington, Kentucky

Legislative Forum: Tolls for Bridge Project Won't Pass General Assembly

"Tolls won't pass the General Assembly," said State Senator Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown, whose district stretches north to include southern Kenton Co. and part of South Covington). Thayer joined fellow State Senator Chris McDaniel (R-Taylor Mill, whose district is northern Kenton Co. and Covington), State Rep. Arnold Simpson (D-Covington) and State Rep. Adam Koenig (R-Erlanger) at the Northern Kentucky Forum Tuesday night at Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills.

"Our State, Our Voice: The 2013 Kentucky General Assembly" was the theme of the forum, emceed by Ryan Alessi, host of cn|2's Pure Politics. The panelists, which also included Rob Weber of the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission, discussed a wide range of topics facing Frankfort this year, but none dominated the conversation like the Brent Spence Bridge project and the prospect of tolls being used to finance the $2 billion effort. 

"This is a federal issue," McDaniel said. "If it's not the obligation of the federal government to maintain a bridge that carries four-percent of the nation's GDP (gross domestic product), than what is?" The freshman senator argued that federal transportation dollars given to state should then be disbursed based on population. "(If the funds) are reallocated based on population, we're not having this discussion because the money is there."

"One aspect that troubles me greatly is the rush to go through with this," Simpson said of the bridge project. "As opposed to going forth in a hasty manner, we should seize the opportunity to wait a year or two to see what happens in Jefferson County."

That's where a new toll-financed bridge is being constructed between Louisville and Indiana. Comparisons were made between Northern Kentucky's internal debate over tolls and the situation one-hundred miles south down Interstate 71, only the empathy was with the Indiana side of the river. "There aren't many people from Louisville who go to work in Indiana every day," Thayer said, noting that many Northern Kentuckians cross the Brent Spence to work in Cincinnati. "Everybody in Ohio wants tolls because Northern Kentucky will pay for it."

McDaniel called it "disproportionate taxation" on the Kentucky side of the river. "It would be absolutely devastating to our region," he said. Simpson called tolls nothing more than a tax and said that he prays tolls won't be included in the final project. Koenig noted that he voted against tolls to help fund the Louisville bridge project.

The issue of tolls not only filled much of Tuesday's forum, it also fills the local legislators' inboxes. "The number-one issue I'm contacted about is the Brent Spence Bridge," McDaniel said, adding that his post office box was jammed with a hundred letters. Ninety-eight people who wrote those letters were opposed to tolls while one was indifferent and another supported them.

OTHER ISSUES DISCUSSED AT FORUM:

All four legislators on the panel agreed that pension reform was the top issue facing the General Assembly in 2013. Their comments will be featured in an article to be posted later Wednesday at RCN. Simpson said that redistricting is also a top priority. "My district has approximately thirty-six thousand people and Rep. (Sal) Santoro's has approximately sixty thousand. That's fundamentally unfair," he said. "It's a very tedious isse and very, very personal. Nevertheless, it's our responsibility."

CASINO GAMBLING

The issue of expanded gaming in Kentucky dominated the 2012 session where a bill sponsored by Thayer and supported by Governor Steve Beshear in a bipartisan move was defeated. Thayer said that he will not sponsor a gambling bill this session, though he remains supportive. "I took my crack at the bill last year and I'm not inclined to do so again," he said.

Simpson wondered if Kentucky has waited too long. "We have a mature market in Indiana and a new market in Cincinnati," he said. Simpson said that he still supports expanded gaming, mainly to bolster the ailing Kentucky horse racing industry, and more specifically, Turfway Park in Florence. "Perhaps a casino would not be successful here but there are other parts of Kentucky where it could be."

Koenig also supports expanded gaming but is not looking forward to debating the issue again. "That's an issue that sucks all the energy out of a session," he said.

ANGEL INVESTMENT TAX CREDIT

Simpson sponsored a bill in 2012 that would have created an angel investment tax credit in Kentucky, an effort supported by the City of Covington and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. The idea behind such a tax credit, that would extend a fifty-percent credit on each $10,000 invested, is to boost the number of start-up enterprises in the state. "Each and every state that borders our Commonwealth has these," said Simpson, who took the reins of the bill from former State Senator Jack Westwood (R-Erlanger) who retired last year. 

Thayer said that if the bill passes the House it would be met with widespread support in the Senate. However, he's not optimistic that any form of tax reform will be debated in the short session that begins the first week of February and lasts for thirty days. "It is very unlikely that we will deal with tax reform in the regular session," he said. "I think the governor is laying the groundwork for a special session on tax reform."

SPECIAL TAXING DISTRICTS

In November, State Auditor Adam Edelen released a report that called special taxing districts in the state a $2.7 billion "ghost government". The debate over such unelected special tax boards had already been raging in Kenton County where the local tea party and Northern Kentucky Home Builders Association led an unsuccessful petition drive and subsequent legal proceedings to dissolve the Northern Kentucky Area Planning Commission.

Special taxing districts also include water, sewer, library, and other commissions made up of people appointed by elected officials.

"These are dollars with no taxpayer oversight," said Thayer, a supporter of dissolving the NKAPC and legislation that would allow it. He served on a panel in 2005 with Simpson that recommended ways for these districts to be better accounted for, but said that they got no traction. "In all but three counties, they spend more than the fiscal courts. It's taxation without representation."

"I think we need to scrutinize it but we need to do it carefully to ensure that we do no harm," Simpson said. With elected officials, "voters have a recourse. They can remove us. These districts that create and raises rates, they have no accountability."

"I fail to see how any organization with taxing authority would find accountability to be red tape," McDaniel said.

"If a library feels it needs more staff, they should take requests to the fiscal court," Thayer said.

"It's hard to argue against the additional layer of elected officials having more oversight," Koenig said. But, he said, having served on the Kenton County Commission for eight years, he knows how difficult new regulations could be for the providing of services by the districts if they have to go through fiscal courts first.

OTHER NOTES:

All four legislators are opposed to a statewide smoking ban, despite a recent poll that indicated nearly six in ten Kentucky adults are supportive of one

A bill that aims to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky will likely not pass the General Assembly, but Simpson favors it. The Covington Democrat cited "a litany of examples" in which the death penalty was executed upon prisoners later to be proven innocent and also the "tremendous cost" on the state of legal appeals to death sentences. "Looking at my district, a majority would be against repealing the death penalty but I would disagree witht he majority on that," Simpson said.

"I favor keeping the death penalty for the most heinous of murder crimes and that's probably a majority opinion of the senate," Thayer said, adding that the bill would likely not be called to the floor.

Northern Kentucky Forum is a non-partisan, education-oriented effort to bring public affairs dialogue to the region. It is a joint project of Northern Kentucky University's Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement, Vision 2015, and Legacy.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News

Photo: Legislators take part in Northern Kentucky Forum's General Assembly discussion/RCN