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Eastern Kentucky lawmakers get key House committee appointments

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Eastern Kentucky is well represented in key positions in the state House, thanks to committee assignments announced Thursday by House Democratic leadership.

Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, is the new chairwoman of the influential House Budget Review Subcommittee on Transportation, which helps develop the state’s road-building plan.

Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, will replace Combs as chairman of the House Tourism Development and Energy Committee, giving him an opportunity to work on coal issues.

Meanwhile, Rep. John Will Stacy, D-West Liberty, is the new chairman of the House Budget Review Subcommittee on General Government, Finance and Public Protection, a panel that holds the purse strings for several key areas in government.

Their appointments come from the five-member House Democratic leadership, two members of which are from Eastern Kentucky — Speaker Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg and Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook.

Feds want Kentucky to charge coal industry more for cleaning up mines

By John Cheves
jcheves@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Kentucky fails to make the coal industry pay enough to clean up the environmental wreckage it leaves behind, according to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

Though state and federal regulators are negotiating this summer in an attempt to solve the problem, Kentucky lawmakers on Thursday said the criticism is another example of President Barack Obama’s “war on coal.”

Making companies pay larger reclamation bonds — as required by a 1977 federal law on surface mining — is a political move intended to destroy coal companies, the lawmakers said at a joint meeting of the Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment.

“They want to make coal mining illegal,” said state Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, who has various business interests in the coal industry. “I don’t want to roll over dead and play stoolie in front of the federal government, either, because I believe in states’ rights.”

“There is an assault on Kentucky, and really on our way of life,” said state Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, who also has business interests related to the coal industry.

Kentucky ethics panel reprimands and fines state Rep. Keith Hall

By John Cheves – jcheves@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — State Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, broke the law by improperly using his public office to benefit himself, the Legislative Ethics Commission ruled Tuesday.

In a rare punishment of a legislator, the commission fined Hall $2,000 and notified House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, that it had publicly reprimanded Hall.

Specifically, Hall voted in 2005 to appropriate coal-severance taxes for a Pike County sewer project from which one of his companies was given more than $171,000 in no-bid contracts.

“The commission has repeatedly stressed to members of the General Assembly that all legislators need to carefully scrutinize the appropriations which are part of the state budget, particularly if those appropriations are directed to a purpose or an area in which the legislator may have a business or personal relationship,” the commission said in its ruling.

Ethics panel will hold formal trial of state Rep. Keith Hall

State Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps

By John Cheves
jcheves@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — State Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, faces a formal ethics trial in coming weeks over questions about more than $171,000 that one of his companies collected from no-bid utility contracts.

The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission hearing will be open to the public and is likely to be scheduled for late September or early October, said George Troutman, chairman of the ethics panel.

The ethics panel met behind closed doors for four hours Tuesday to hear the preliminary case against Hall as presented by its enforcement counsel, Mike Malone.

Hall attended with his attorney, Brent Caldwell. State Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, was called as a witness to discuss how legislators decide which projects in their districts get tax funds.

Ethics panel holds closed-door hearing regarding Rep. Keith Hall

State Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps

By John Cheves – jcheves@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — The Legislative Ethics Commission held a closed-door hearing Tuesday to review a complaint about state Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, and more than $171,000 one of his companies collected through utility contracts that avoided competitive bidding and public discussion.

The commission heard testimony from several witnesses, including an auditor for state Auditor Crit Luallen, who issued a report about Hall’s contracts in January and referred it to the ethics commission.

“Today they requested testimony from one of our auditors who worked on that report,” said Luallen, who did not attend the hearing. “It certainly is gratifying to see the process moving forward.”

George Troutman, the commission’s chairman, declined to discuss the day’s proceedings or publicly identify the subject of the complaint. The panel plans to meet again Aug. 16 to resume its work on the case, Troutman said.

Ethics panel starts review of Rep. Keith Hall

State Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps

By John Cheves — jcheves@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — The Legislative Ethics Commission on Tuesday assigned its enforcement counsel to study findings about state Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, and more than $171,000 one of Hall’s companies collected through utility contracts that avoided competitive bidding and public discussion.

The findings were disclosed in a report state Auditor Crit Luallen issued in January examining Mountain Water District, a public water and sewer utility in Pike County. Luallen sent her report to the ethics commission and to Attorney General Jack Conway, who is continuing to review it, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

George Troutman, ethics commission chairman, said he hopes enforcement counsel Mike Malone will report back with recommendations at the panel’s April meeting. The ethics commission can’t open an investigation without a signed complaint, but its counsel can sign a complaint at the commission’s request, Troutman said.

Hall declined to comment on the issue.

In a separate matter, Hall was named in November to the board of Empire Global Energy, a Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., company that is developing Colombian coal concessions. (His other businesses include interests in coal mines.)

Kentucky House calls for study of electing utility regulators

State Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps

By John Cheves — jcheves@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — The Kentucky House on Wednesday narrowly approved a bill creating a task force that could recommend the state elect its Public Service Commission rather than let the governor continue to appoint it.

At issue is who decides the makeup of the PSC, which must approve utility rate increases, and whether electing it would make it more accountable to ratepayers or more easily influenced by utility companies giving large campaign donations.

Originally, Senate Bill 151 called for the three-member appointed PSC to be replaced by a seven-member elected PSC. After several changes on its way to the House floor, the version approved by a 48-46 vote Wednesday instead called for a task force to study “alternative methods” of selecting commissioners, with a focus on “protections for vulnerable ratepayers.”

If the Senate concurs with the House changes, the bill goes to Gov. Steve Beshear for his signature or veto.

Two coal-protection measures advance in Kentucky legislature

State Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence

By John Cheves — jcheves@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — State lawmakers soundly criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday as two legislative panels approved different measures to shield Kentucky coal mining from federal pollution rules.

“The EPA don’t understand mining,” House Natural Resources and Environment Chairman Jim Gooch, D-Providence, said at his committee’s hearing. “We’re trying to say to those folks, we don’t want them having ultimate say or control.”

Lawmakers acknowledged that it’s unclear what legal weight their measures would carry beyond “sending a message” to Washington. Federal law usually trumps state law, especially in regards to environmental protection and interstate commerce. But lawmakers said they’re trying to make a point for states’ rights.

“We hope it goes to the Supreme Court so we can go argue our case there,” said Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, who is in the coal mining business. “As a member who owns 1,200 acres, when I have intrusion by the federal government that tells me what I can and cannot do with my own property … I call that a taking.”

Audit of Pike Co. utility raises concerns about state lawmaker

State Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps

By John Cheves – jcheves@herald-leader.com

Mountain Water District, a public water and sewer utility in Pike County, has paid more than $36 million in fees to a private management company since 2005 without adequate disclosure or evidence that ratepayers got a good deal, State Auditor Crit Luallen said Thursday.

The utility entered into the original 2005 contract with Utility Management Group without any public board discussion or review of the contract terms “which resulted in costly management fees and conflicts of interest,” Luallen’s office said in audit of the district it released.

One of the conflicts state auditors found was with a company owned by state Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, which collected more than $171,000 for electrical work from the water district. He used a billing method that avoided competitive bidding and public discussion by the district’s board.

As the area’s state representative and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Hall also helped to allocate state funds for the project he later won, Luallen said. The work was done in 2004 and 2005.

Bill would create ATV trails in Eastern Kentucky

State Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps

FRANKFORT — A bill that would lead to a system of ATV trails in Eastern Kentucky was approved by a House committee Thursday.

House Bill 173, sponsored by Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, would connect to similar trail systems in West Virginia and south-western Virginia.

Hall said the trails could attract as many as 200,000 people a year to the region. That would spur spending at hotels, restaurants and gas stations in an economically depressed area.

“We think this is the right thing to do for tourism … in these dead and dying counties,” Hall said.