Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen returned to the region on Tuesday morning as the featured speaker of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce's monthly Eggs n Issues forum.
The Democrat, in his first term, has made several trips here since assuming office, mostly to report on abuse by public officials such as former Covington finance director Bob Due, former Dayton Independent Schools superintendent Gary Rye, and to launch an examination of the CVG Airport Board.
Edelen touched on those issues Tuesday but also answered a handful of questions from those in attendance including one about the use of tolls to finance the $2.6 billion Brent Spence Bridge project.
An amendment added to public-private partnership legislation by Covington Democratic Rep. Arnold Simpson forbade the use of tolls for the project.
"I think the decision to slide into legislation something that prevents things you absolutely cannot consider as an option is not smart," Edelen said. He previously served as Gov. Steve Beshear's chief of staff and said he was instrumental in developing a bridge project in Louisville that ultimately included a toll element. "The result is the largest public infrastructure project in the United States."
"I think it's really short-sighted to eliminate one of your possible options, particularly when any federal administrator is going to tell you, in the last forty significant public infrastructure projects, every one has involved a local financing component, which is a fancy way of saying tolls," Edelen said.
"If you want a bridge, if you think the Brent Spence Bridge is on its last legs, you're ultimately going to have to make a decision on whether you're willing to pay for that new bridge."
Beshear vetoed the public-private partnership legislation
last week, citing Simpson's amendment. The Kentucky House of Representatives will vote on a road funding bill later Tuesday that would give $29 million for design work on the bridge project, $23 million of which is a federal earmark that cannot go towards anything else. The amount is far shorter than the $60 million proposed by Beshear earlier this year.
"Should Congress fund the money to pay for the bridge? Absolutely," Edelen said. "But do you think that's going to happen? I'm just telling you the truth and difficult truths are sometimes difficult to hear and I understand how unpopular tolling is here in Northern Kentucky."
Another issue of local importance, the widespread heroin problem, is one that could be addressed by managed care companies, Edelen said, saying that those companies should fully fund drug treatment.
"You have to treat people who are addicted and the notion you can treat someone with a heroin addiction in thirty days, you might as well not treat them at all," he said. "Drug treatment is one of these things you can't do half way and the number of people losing their children to this drug epidemic is something that is deeply frightening."
"We have to have a network in place to deal with it and we don't have that network yet."
As for the pending CVG Airport Board examination, Edelen said that his office is still working on it and that he would not give a timeline on when it may be completed. He said that he learned during the examination of former Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Richie Farmer, who is in a federal prison now, not to issue timelines. Edelen predicted six weeks for that exam that eventually took months.
"What the flying public deserves is an airport board focused solely on expanding its base, getting cheaper and more flights. That's what our evaluation is focused on," Edelen said. "We're looking at the structure of the board to see if this is the best one to demonstrate value for people in Northern Kentucky."
"It'll be done when it's done."
Meanwhile, the auditor suggested that having more business people in the political arena could increase accountability in public office. "We need more business people running for office," he said. "Only in politics. I couldn't imagine being in a leadership position where it was my job to have an opinion, declare victory, and move on. Can you imagine if you ran your business like that?"
"We have to build more of a stakeholder, shareholder system. That requires more people from the business community running for office," he said.
One area where his opinion on the matter is strongest is at the local school board level. "The level of financial literacy is nowhere near where you want it to be," Edelen said of school boards. "We have whole school boards in Kentucky with people with no clue how to read a balance sheet."
He lamented that hemp production has been the best economic development conversation the state has had in recent years. "Hemp is a good idea, but it's not a big idea," Edelen said. "How many of you think your kids are going to be employed by a rope manufacturer?"
"We need to talk about how to employ a twenty-first century skills set, how to help small business owners who can't find the capital to expand, how to integrate high schools in postsecondary education. That's what we need to be talking about."
"People who get into politics for too long begin to think it's a game," said Edelen who is mulling a 2015 run for governor. "It's not a game. It's the very important business of helping people improve their lot in life."
"What we need here in Kentucky are elections and campaigns about a marketplace of ideas. ...Organizations like the Chamber of Commerce are critical to raising the level of expectations we have for our elected leaders. ...Kentucky can be whatever it wants to be. We were founded by pioneers and we are populated by people who know what it's like to get through hard times."
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: Adam Edelen talks to Covington Mayor Sherry Carran, Chamber of Commerce interim President Brent Cooper, and Chamber VP Adam Caswell/RCN