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Emergency highway funds at ‘dangerously low’ levels

FRANKFORT


A spending spree by the Transportation Cabinet in the final months of former Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s term has left the state’s contingency fun at dangerously low levels.

The cabinet spent 99 percent of the money appropriated to the Highway Construction Contingency Account, leaving the new administration with about $650,000 to spend with more than half the fiscal year still remaining.

New Transportation Cabinet secretary Joe Prather said the money won’t be enough to cover “unforeseen emergencies” the rest of the year, meaning the cabinet will have to “dip into a tight maintenance budget.”

State law says the transportation secretary can spend money on the account on emergencies, hazards and “other purposes that the secretary determines to be a priority.”

However, a majority of the projects approved by former Transportation secretary Bill Nighbert were grants to counties and cities to pay for blacktopping local roads. Resurfacing is considered routine maintenance and is rarely deemed an emergency.

Nighbert declined to comment on the issue, but some wonder if the spending was an effort to boost Fletcher’s re-election chances.

Clark County Judge-Executive Henry Branham, a Democrat, said the county received nearly $770,000 in funds to blacktop roads even though they didn’t ask for the money.

Rep. Don Pasley, D-Winchester and chairman of a budget subcommittee on transportation, called Fletcher’s administration’s actions “good politics, but poor public policy. The money is completely at the discretion of the secretary, and it looks like they wanted to spend a lot of discretionary money heading up to the governor’s race.”

The $65.2 million available at the beginning of the year included $27.5 million left over from the 2006-07 budget and $37.7 million appropriated by the General Assembly for 2007-08.

“I would not approve spending those contingency dollars down to that level,” said state Senator Charlie Borders (RRussell). “If they did that, that would be irresponsible.”

It’s not the first time an administration has used money in the contingency fund for blacktopping. A 2001 report by The Courier-Journal of Louisville revealed former Gov. Paul Patton spent most of the contingency fund on resurfacing.


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