By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COVINGTON - The ground rules for Wednesday's visit to Northern Kentucky by about 75 members of the General Assembly were pretty simple:
Policy all day, party into the night.
Through six interim committee and subcommittee meetings held at four venues across all three Northern Kentucky counties, lawmakers heard testimony and concerns on an array of issues that included health care, education, the horse racing industry and the proposed $10 million farmers market for Covington.
But by 5 p.m., the lawmakers joined more than 300 business and community leaders for Northern Kentucky United, an event that included a reception on the Belle of Cincinnati riverboat followed by a quick cruise across the Ohio River to Great American Ball Park for the game between the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs.
Lawmakers were then invited to stop by the Hofbrauhaus beer garden and restaurant and the neighboring Newport on the Levee entertainment complex. Both are tourist attractions and economic development projects benefiting from tax breaks approved by the General Assembly.
"Northern Kentucky is dynamic. I love coming up here and seeing what all is going on," said House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green. "It's really happening up here."
Lawmakers are in Northern Kentucky through today to attend a series of interim committee meetings. Because the legislature is not in session, no votes are taken - but testimony is heard.
The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce helped arrange the two-day visit and paid the $20,000 cost, said Steve Stevens, the chamber's vice president of government affairs and the business group's top Frankfort lobbyist.
"We want the legislators here to see what is going on in Northern Kentucky," Stevens said. "It gives us a chance to show some things off, but it also allows us to tell the legislature there are still needs to be met in our region."
Nearly every meeting drew big crowds, especially those held by the Education, and Health and Welfare committees.
During the Agriculture and Natural Resources meeting, proponents of the farmers market - proposed on Scott Street in Covington between Sixth and Seventh streets - made their case for receiving $5 million from the federal tobacco settlement.
While the state's Agriculture Development Board, which is independent of the legislature, will make the decision next month on the funding, backers of the market clearly want lawmakers behind the project.
"This project will help revitalize an urban core while at the same time preserving farmland," said Tom West of KZF Design, one of the major supporters.
Sen. David Boswell, D-Owensboro, who 20 years ago served as Kentucky agriculture commissioner, said farmers markets have been proposed in Northern Kentucky in the past, but the projects were unable to secure state money.
"But this time I think they have their ducks in line," Boswell said. "It looks like a great project that could be very successful. I was impressed."
At Newport Middle School, area educators - including Northern Kentucky University's president, James Votruba, and Gateway Community College's president, Ed Hughes - told the Education Committee about the need for equitable higher education funding.
"We call on the General Assembly to provide the funding required to maintain Kentucky's education momentum and not to retreat by cutting Kentucky's investments in education," Votruba said.
And at the first-ever meeting of the Agriculture subcommittee on horse farming, members of the horse racing industry stressed the importance of their business, which has a $3.4 billion impact on the state's economy.
"This committee was designed to listen to the concerns of the horse industry and see what the General Assembly can do to assist what is a very important business in Kentucky," said committee Chairman Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who represents southern Kenton County.
After the meetings, the legislators were able to unwind on the riverboat with cocktails and a buffet dinner that included turkey breast, ham and shrimp.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, was in Northern Kentucky just a few weeks ago to meet with area leaders. He was so impressed with the region and its attractions that Wednesday he took his wife, three children and niece on the boat ride and to the ball game.
"It's important for legislators to come up here," Hoover said. "It's a great event to showcase Northern Kentucky because so many people out in the state don't know how truly good things are up here."
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