FRANKFORT, Ky. — A $4.5 billion transportation budget cleared the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee on Thursday, but not before Republicans inserted language that would restore nearly $50 million in road construction projects that had been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
Appropriations and Revenue Committee Chairman Bob Leeper cited a "fit of conscience" for his push to restore the money, saying Beshear unfairly removed the projects earlier this week. The projects were all in the district of Beshear's chief Republican rival, Senate President David Williams.
"I'm a firm believer in trying to do the right thing, and I don't think that was the right thing," said Leeper, an independent from Paducah.
The appropriations bill, which includes funding to widen interstate highways and expand airports, now advances to the Senate floor for a planned vote on Friday.
Since Monday, lawmakers have been meeting in a special legislative session that's costing taxpayers about $60,000 a day. Beshear called them back to Frankfort to pass the transportation budget and a bill intended to curb prescription drug abuse after they concluded the regular annual session without doing so.
The drug bill is tentatively set for votes in the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor on Friday.
Beshear has sharply criticized Williams in recent days, charging that his unwillingness to pass a transportation budget in a regular legislative session that ended last week forced the special session that has cost some $240,000 so far.
The Senate had refused to pass the transportation budget until Beshear signed the road construction plan. Neither side was willing to budge before time ran out in the regular session.
As leaders in their respective parties, Williams and Beshear have been at odds for years. Beshear has pushed unsuccessfully to oust Williams as Senate president by trying to elect enough Democrats to overturn the GOP majority. Beshear has even appointed Republican senators to lucrative positions outside the Legislature to create potential openings for Democrats.
Williams has survived and his supporters see the governor's latest action as another attempt to weaken the Burkesville lawyer who has been Senate president for more than a decade.
Leeper said the governor's decision to veto the southern Kentucky road construction projects seemed to be another slap at Williams without any consideration for the more than 100,000 constituents who would benefit.
"I watched this process go through, if you want to call it a process, and some things that happened here at the end that, quite frankly, I don't think any of us should be proud of," Leeper said.
Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, said he's concerned about the impression voters have been left with after "this odyssey" unfolded.
"This is a very unpleasant experience here and it's an unnecessary experience," he said. "It looks, at least to the people who talk to me in the public, like children up here trying to make decisions."
He later added: "I can't say that this is our finest hour. In fact, I have to say that I'm somewhat embarrassed by what's going on here. I'm not pointing a finger at an individual. I'm saying as an institution, this is not good."
The House has already passed the transportation budget that provides funding for more than 1,000 construction projects, including the state's largest: $2.6 billion for two bridges across the Ohio River in Louisville.
The measure also sets aside $200 million to widen I-65, where numerous fatal traffic accidents have occurred in recent years. A crash on a rural stretch of the highway near Munfordville in 2010 killed 11 people, 10 of them members of a Mennonite family and a truck driver whose tractor-trailer crossed the median and struck their van.
Leeper said he doesn't want his amendment to restore the $50 million in vetoed projects to slow passing the bill. He said if the full Senate objects, he's willing to withdraw it. And if the House refuses to accept it, he's willing to withdraw it.
"This is not to gum this up," Leeper said. "This is to give people the right to do what I think is the right thing."
If both the House and Senate approve the amendment, Leeper said the governor still can veto it.
"We're giving him the opportunity to rethink what he's done," Leeper said.
The legislation is House Bill 2.