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NKY Forum: Tackling Tolls, Heroin, & Education in Frankfort

The recently released financing plan for the Brent Spence Bridge project won no fans in State Senators Christ McDaniel and Damon Thayer or State Representative Arnold Simpson.

The three appeared at the Northern Kentucky Forum preview of the 2014 General Assembly on Thursday at Northern Kentucky University.

"I will do everything in my power to make sure tolls do not pass the 2014 General Assembly," Thayer (R-Georgetown) said. "This is the responsibility of the federal government and if we need to bring back earmarks to do it, I support it."

McDaniel, noting the estimated $3.5 billion in total costs, $3.3 billion of which, he said, would be financed by tolls, said the financing plan would not enjoy a lot of support in the state senate. "That's an unbelievably high burden on a region, not to mention the fact that if you look at the diversion rates and the way traffic will flow, a $2 toll one way on the Brent Spence Bridge will not service the debt," McDaniel (R-Taylor Mill) said. The specific amount of any possible toll has not been set.  

The senator said that it would cost the average family a thousand dollars a year in tolls to send one member of the household across the river to Cincinnati for work every day. He also expressed concern over "ceding control of what should be a federal asset to a private company."

Simpson (D-Covington) is of the opinion that a new bridge can wait. While arguing that the responsibility of building the bridge project is the responsibility of the federal government, Simpson said the real question of the General Assembly is whether it should embark on legislation that would enable tolling on the Kentucky side of the river, a necessity for tolls to move forward.

"We have a great experiment going on as we speak, in Louisville," Simpson said of Kentucky's largest city where two new bridges will be built, one financed by tolls. "Why not wait a year or two to see what their experience is."

While tolls are being used for one of the bridges in Louisville, all three legislators noted Thursday that roles for Kentuckians are reversed there. It's southern Indiana commuters who will be impacted by the tolls as they commute to Louisville, whereas in our region, Northern Kentuckians cross the bridge more frequently to work in Cincinnati.

Simpson predicted that the toll would be more than $2 for the average driver.

"If we accept tolls in Northern Kentucky, it's a slippery slope," Simpson said. "The eight-mile corridor stops in Ft. Mitchell. What happens when we decide we need to extend it to (Interstate) 275? We're accustomed to you paying for projects related to the interstate system for the rest of our live." He also said that "tolls will not go away".

Heroin epidemic to be tackled

With Northern Kentucky serving as the epicenter of a heroin crisis spreading across the Commonwealth, all three legislators assured the Forum that combating the drug's use and distribution would be a priority in 2014.

McDaneil vowed to fight on both the consumption and distribution end.

"Those who deal it don't do it but they'll sell and we should have no mercy on folks that would do something like that," McDaniel said. "They should be afraid to come to Kentucky. They should fear they would never see the light of day again. It's intolerable."

Simpson argued that if Northern Kentucky collected its fair share of revenue from Frankfort that there would be money in place for two hundred heroin treatment beds in the region. Instead, the users are incarcerated, taking up much space in the new Kenton County Detention Center. "The new jail is full because of the epidemic we have and have relegated the jail to a treatment center and it's not working," Simpson said. 

"I'm going to tell you right now, tackling this heroin epidemic is going to be one of the major issues of the 2014 senate in the General Assembly," said Thayer. "Your Northern Kentucky legislative caucus will be at the forefront of tackling this problem."

Education and charter school

With a lean budget year ahead and Governor Steve Beshear's push for more education funding, Thayer said he would not be in favor of more government spending in any form, including education (outside of a possible small increase in Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) funding).

Simpson supports more funding for education. Noting that state government spending has been cut $1.6 billion over the past six years, Simpson said that school districts are being forced to do more with less.

"I don't know if we're meeting the needs of the community, quite candidly," he said. "Children are using the same books they've been using for five years. Our centers of great learning, our universities, due to cuts, have been forced to elevate tuition. Obviously students are paying for that."

Simpson called tuition increases a tax. "Any money going from a private citizen's pocket to a public institution is a tax," he said.

Thayer disagreed, arguing that tuition increases are not a tax because going to college is voluntary. The Georgetown Republican said he has a child currently looking at universities. "I'm going to be paying tuition, but that's a voluntary decision that I will make to send my son to college," he said.

"I don't believe tuition is a voluntary tax. I don't agree that having to pay more is a tax increase. The fact of the matter is, we haven't been able to give as much to our public universities and they've had to figure out how to do more with less."

Moderator Ryan Alessi of cn|2 asked if Thayer was sending a mixed message when students are being encouraged to go to college but the cost can be unaffordable.

"It's not all about money," Thayer responded, pointing to cost-per-pupil figures in Jefferson County and Covington Independent Public Schools where the state sees some of its lowest test scores. Of Covington, Thayer asked, "Do we need to talk about that?"

All three support performance-based funding for the state's universities which they believe would benefit Northern Kentucky University, but Thayer and McDaniel support the idea of putting charter schools in Kentucky while Simpson is not entirely supportive.

McDaniel said it was a matter of rewarding success instead of rewarding failure. "You can take a school that is not performing and close it and send children where there is one meeting those standards," the Taylor Mill Republican said. "When your (State) Education Commissioner describes fourteen public schools in Jefferson County as committing educational genocide on the population and he can do nothing about it, we have a problem and we need new solutions and (chharter schools) allow us the ability to implement those solutions."

"Most data I have seen on charter schools is inconclusive relative to the benefit," Simpson said, adding that he would be open to a fair debate on the issue. One of the Covington Democrat's concerns is that these private institutions would take money from the public schools.
 
Thayer had no problem with that. "Let's make them compete for those public dollars," Thayer said. "Let's make them accountable and make sure they have measurable metrics that they are preparing these kids for college."
 
"Competition makes everybody better."

Local option sales tax and other issues

There was not much support to be found Thursday for a proposed local option sales tax sought by the mayors of Covington, Louisville, and Lexington, among other local government leaders. Thayer and McDaniel said they were opposed while Simpson said he was up for debating it in the framework of why Northern Kentucky does not get its fair share from Frankfort.

All three reiterated support for an angel investment tax credit, a funding mechanism supported by business leaders and entrepreneurs in the region that advocates argue would make new enterprises more competitive and attractive to investors.

The three legislators expect to debate expanded gaming in some form, but it is still unclear what, if any, type of gambling legislation could pass.

While a recent survey found that 65% of Kentuckians favor a statewide smoking ban, none of the three on Thursday were supportive of any proposal to implement one.

McDaniel and Thayer support making Kentucky a "right-to-work" state which would eliminate any requirement that a labor union has that all employees at a particular location must join and pay dues. Simpson is opposed to the idea.

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

Photo via NKY Forum