Whitesburg KY

Rep. Combs reflects on past, looks to future

A little more than a decade ago, I made the biggest decision of my career when I put my name on the ballot for the Kentucky House of Representatives.

Last fall, I made my secondbiggest professional decision when I decided not to run for re-election.

There is a saying that your life consists of two dates and a dash, so make the most of the dash. As I reflect on the brief line that will separate the day I first took the oath for office and the date my successor will take over serving the 94th House District, I’m left with a simple thought: That dash seems pretty short in hindsight. And yet, this time was far more rewarding than I could ever have hoped.

I want to thank The Mountain Eagle for giving me the chance to share what this experience has meant to me and my family. It has given us an even deeper appreciation of our corner of the commonwealth and the people who proudly call it home.

The last decade, as our community knows all too well, has not been an easy one for us, given the lingering effects of a worldwide recession and the devastating losses in the coal fields. That one-two punch may have taken much from us, but it has not weakened our resolve to make tomorrow better than today.

Helping us achieve that ongoing goal is why I ran to be a state representative. I wanted to join with others to improve our schools and workforce training programs; to help grow and diversify our economy; and to provide the infrastructure we and future generations will need to better connect to and compete with the world.

None of these tasks are ever truly finished, of course – there’s always room for improvement – but as I look back on the past 10 years, I see a tremendous amount of progress in each area.

When it comes to our local infrastructure, most of the stateauthorized projects are paid for either through the Road Fund or coal-severance revenues.

For more than three years now, I have helped guide the former as chair of the House Budget Review Subcommittee on Transportation. This role is a true balancing act, because the demand for new roads is always larger than the supply of available money. Declining state and federal gas revenues have made that task even tougher in recent years.

Nevertheless, we have found ways to start or complete some major projects during that time.

Statewide, those range from two sets of twin bridges in Louisville and Land Between the Lakes to widening I-65 between Elizabethtown and the Tennessee state line.

I may be biased, but I think the project with the biggest statewide impact over the past decade is the $750 million expansion of the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway. We had been promised this for decades, so to see the bulldozers, trucks, backhoes and steamrollers finally make it a reality is a beautiful sight to see. Once finished, it will open the region for tourism and economic development and finally make it possible to travel on a four-lane road from Pikeville to Paducah.

On a more local level, we have had a lot of success as well. According to the Transportation Cabinet, Pike County has received more than $570 million in state and federal dollars since 2007. This money has gone to such projects as the completion of US 460; planning the road to Phelps; creating better traffic flow where there has been increased commercialization; and developing roads for major job opportunities at the Marion Branch site.

Letcher County, which is also part of the 94th House District, has received $160.5 million over the past decade, while Harlan County – a portion of which I represented before 2013’s re-drawing of legislative districts – received $58.6 million. This money has been used to build a new entryway for Jenkins and to lay the groundwork for building Hwy. 119 from US 23 to Whitesburg, a needed safety measure that will also give residents a quicker route to the county seat. There are plans as well to improve the roads needed for the county’s new federal prison.

When it comes to funding for coal-severance projects, the past decade has unfortunately seen our region go from feast to famine. Pike County alone received about $1.3 million more single-county coal dollars during the 2008 fiscal year – the first under a budget I voted for – than Pike, Letcher and Harlan counties are set to receive combined during the next two fiscal years.

In 2014, Hazard’s Rep. Fitz Steele and I tried to reverse that trend by sponsoring the first bill that would have returned all coalseverance dollars to the counties that generate them, as opposed to the current formula that only returns about half.

Early this year, we heard the same request from our region’s county officials, who said making this change was more imperative than ever, especially with other state revenues seeing much stronger growth. While I wish the House budget proposal to make this transition over the next four years had become law, I am still pleased that the budget the General Assembly enacted this year at least begins moving us in the direction Rep. Steele and I began pointing toward two years ago.

Over the past decade, the three counties that have been part of the 94th House District have received a little more than $93 million for single-county projects, almost half of which went to Pike County alone.

This has been tremendously helpful in a variety of ways, especially for boosting access to and the quality of our utilities. In Letcher County, for example, only 30 percent of the residents were receiving treated water when I first took office; now, the number is over 90 percent.

Other single-county projects have benefited our local schools, first responders and parks. They have gone to expand drug treatment, to run our domestic-violence prevention and senior citizen programs and to increase our tourism and economic-development potential. There is not a part of our district that has not benefited in some way from this money over the years. We have been extremely good stewards and have proven that the severance revenues we generate are better spent locally.

While work on the budget and the state highway plans have taken up a considerable amount of my time as a legislator, I have worked on a wide range of other legislation that I am equally proud of and that will continue having a major impact long after my career in public service is over.

The biggest of those is the most recent. It took several years of trying and a gubernatorial veto to overcome, but this year, the General Assembly approved my bill that authorizes public-private partnerships between state and local government and the private sector.

In short, this establishes the framework that government will now use when teaming up with a private business to carry out a public project or program. About 30 states already have something similar in place, and they’re using it to take on billion-dollar projects that government could not do alone, and to run programs like utilities that can benefit from the expertise companies have in that particular area.

This legislation was set to become law in 2014, but because it could have potentially limited how a new Ohio River bridge in Northern Kentucky would be built, the bill was vetoed.

Although that bothered me at the time, it caused me to re-double my efforts, and the result was a better bill that will make the P3 process more transparent and accountable. This legislation has since drawn national and international attention, and I am scheduled to speak at several events this summer alone to tell others how we in Kentucky were able to pass it and why it should be a model for other states going forward.

Several years ago, I sponsored what I consider a precursor to the P3 bill when the General Assembly approved my plan to have the Transportation Cabinet create a pilot program that would gauge the success of the design/build format. This calls on companies reclaiming land to work with road crews, where applicable, to build roads planned for the area. This saves the state both time and money without putting any burden on the companies themselves, and the concept will put to further use during the next two years.

One of my top legislative priorities has been to help our region overcome a drug epidemic that has arguably hit us harder than any other area of the country. In 2008, I sponsored a bill that would have called on the Department of Corrections to develop an intensive substance-abuse recovery program for abusers who had been arrested and were considered candidates for pre-trial diversion.

Although this measure did not pass then, it was in the same vein as landmark legislation that did become law in 2011 and 2015 that also recognized we had to treat the addiction if we wanted to truly lower what was the nation’s fastestgrowing prison population last decade.

I was proud to support both of those laws, and to add to them in 2015 when I sponsored the law that broadened licensing requirements for alcohol/ drug treatment counselors. That has increased the number of those in the field with advanced degrees as well as former addicts who want to use their experiences to help others escape the deadly cycle.

Another major push I wanted to make as a legislator was improving our educational opportunities, and I think we have succeeded quite well here. The highlight of my work here is sponsoring the Coal County College Completion Scholarship Program, which has since helped hundreds of college students in the eastern and western coalfields complete their four-year degree close to home. During this year’s budget, we added significantly more money to this program.

I believe a public fouryear university here in the mountains should still be our ultimate goal, but until that happens, this program is serving as a welcome bridge.

As a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, I was more than happy to sponsor legislation in 2011 that enabled Kentucky voters to amend our state constitution and better protect our hunting and fishing rights. Not many legislators can say they successfully passed a constitutional amendment, and it meant a lot to me that it was also House Bill 1, the number House leaders give to the chamber’s top priority each legislative session.

The final law I want to mention was one of my most personal. This measure, approved in 2010, added a salary supplement to speech/language pathologists and audiologists teaching at school. While I am proud of this legislation, I am still fighting to make sure it is properly funded. I have seen first-hand how important these specialists are, because my son benefited greatly from their care and expertise when he was in elementary school.

When I was asked to write this review, I was also asked what I would like to see happen in the years to come.

I believe the ideas we are seeing coming out of the SOAR initiative are certainly a good start. We also need to complete the Mountain Parkway expansion and find ways to open a better route to the east. Increasing access to broadband internet is crucial, as is expanding and diversifying our economy and making a college education more affordable and accessible. If we want companies beating a path to our front door, we need to make sure they have what they need when they get here.

The good news is that the work we have done over the past 10 years is a strong foundation on which to build. The better news is that our communities are pulling together to get the job done. We are living proof of our state motto: United we stand, divided we fall.

My time serving the 94th House District may be drawing to a close, but don’t think for a moment that I am any less committed to helping our community and region succeed. It may be in another capacity, but rest assured that I’m not going anywhere.

I’m ready to start working on that next dash.

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