Irony or premonition? Workers making repairs placed scaffolding on the front of the State Capitol just prior to the Nov. 8 election. Did they sense something coming?
Many predictions indicated major movement in the works for Frankfort’s political structure. Cracks in the Democrat’s hold on state government were exposed when the Republicans took the majority in the Kentucky Senate in 2000 and in 2003 when Ernie Fletcher took the governor’s seat.
But Gov. Fletcher got caught in his own rock slide. Democrats nailed down the House.
Like the New Madrid Fault Line in western Kentucky, any breaks lay dormant, largely ignored.
But U. S. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell beat the margin predictions in 2014, winning some traditional Democratic hotspots. Then Matt Bevin caused tremors when he won the governor’s seat in 2015. The walls shook and some law books fell off the shelves.
And in 2016, Trump jammed the Richter Scale, the entire state reeled and the GOP erupted into a 91-47 overall GOP edge in the legislature.
Tremors are obvious under the Frankfort dome as Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Democrats are sorting through the rubble as Republicans stand ready to take up big issues, often vetted, but never voted.
Speaker Jeff Hoover of Russell County heads up the House, well prepared by years of study from the minority leader’s seat.
A veteran in the Senate front chair, President Robert Stivers of Clay County carefully conducts the upper chamber.
The rural flavor is clear. The combined population of the home counties of Hoover and Stivers is just shy of 39,000 according to the U.S. Census. Both majority leaders also have contrasting roots in their political geography.
Sen. Damon Thayer directs action on the floor of the Senate with a strong voice and pinpoint precision. His district covers I-75 territory from Scott to Kenton counties.
Rep. Jonathan Shell, the new House majority floor leader, brings a unique combination of youth and experience. He turns 30 this year. This time last year, Shell was shrewdly recruiting a cadre of candidates to topple the 95-year reign of Democrats. Lancaster is home for him.
The quake shook Democrats, notably Rep. Rocky Adkins, who joined the House the year Shell was born in 1987.
Adkins worked hand-in-hand with the now absent Greg Stumbo for most of those years in his post as floor leader, now heading the new Democratic caucus, which faces extensive rebuilding.
How important is all this? Leader McConnell often explains his role as offensive coordinator, looking for scoring, while the minority leadership runs the defensive side.
Leaders in the House will be ably assisted by a fresh roster including House Speaker Pro-Tem David Osborne, Majority Caucus Chair David Meade and Majority Whip Kevin Bratcher. Bratcher, from Jefferson County, will bring an urban perspective to the otherwise decidedly rural flavor.
The united Republican front looks to move economic issues over social concerns, passing right-to-work, repealing the prevailing wage law, approving charter schools, and allowing medical review panels as a step toward tort reform.
Count on a vigorous shake and quake from those not in favor. Labor leaders flooded the rotunda with a roar when right-to-work came up over a decade ago. AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan will lead the push-back.
Sen. Ray Jones, another Eastern Kentuckian, again guides the 11 Senate Democrats. Joining Jones in leadership is former Gov. Julian Carroll. Sen. Dorsey Ridley was added, taking the post by defeating Sen. Gerald Neal.
The Senate GOP management team also includes highly experienced members. Sen. David Givens fills the president’s seat when Stivers himself takes to the floor or related business.
Sen. Dan Seum chairs the 27-member majority when they meet before afternoon sessions. Sen. Jimmy Higdon keeps a close count on the consensus in his role as whip.
In the minority for the first time since 1921, Rep. Dennis Keene of Campbell County and Rep. Wilson Stone, an Allen County farmer, took top roles to lead the Democrats. Keene chairs the caucus while Stone is the whip. A former Speaker, well-known Jody Richards, did not seek a top role this time.
Rep. Sannie Overly made history as a woman in leadership. She chose not to run again, but continues as chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party. In all of Senate and House leadership, there are no women or minorities.
Mac Brown, a lynchpin in the takeover, was re-elected to head the Republican Party of Kentucky.
Both party chairs must give frequent consideration to the 2018 House campaign line-up. Point of note: About four of every five states have more women elected to legislatures than Kentucky.
Even though the two-year state budget is a 2018 priority, the Appropriations chairs, Sen. Chris McDaniel and Rep. Steven Rudy, play a continuously active role.
Sen. McDaniel, a member since 2013, got his first budget on the books last winter. He is keenly focused on the pension debt, a cavernous problem for the state budget.
Rep. Rudy, the new House chair, will pay close attention to the balance sheet. He served on the group that reviews school and college budgets in previous years.
Health issues are always prominent as are the two women who chair these panels.
New to the House role is Rep. Addia Wuchner of Northern Kentucky. She has been a highly active member of the Health Committee, drawing on her professional experience in healthcare.
Sen. Julie Raque Adams has a steady hand on the Senate health agenda, known for her calm presiding style.
The Judiciary Committee fosters strong discussion, producing recent significant reforms for prisons and criminal justice. Additionally, right-to-life and pro-choice advocates square off here.
The Senate chair is Whitney Westerfield, who lost the 2015 attorney general race by a razor thin margin. Westerfield hails from Hopkinsville. His old neighbor John Tilley teamed with Westerfield to get consensus for change when Tilley was in the House. Tilley now serves in the Bevin Administration as Justice secretary, so the seasoned team members remain tied together – and prominent.
Rep. Joe Fischer of Northern Kentucky heads the House Judiciary Committee for the first time. He has often pushed major topics to the forefront.
Perhaps nowhere will the new terrain be more noticeable than in House Committee rooms, where Republicans will gavel the agenda for all meetings.
A teacher will chair House Education, Rep. John “Bam” Carney. Sen. Mike Wilson, now in his second term, convenes the same committee for the Senate.
Licensing and Occupations often lands fascinating subjects concerning various professions. A new House chair, Rep. Adam
Koenig, is joined with Sen. John Schickel, who has made a mark in the main seat for Senate L&O. Both are Northern Kentuckians.
Labels matter. The House dropped Labor and Industry from its lexicon, naming the committee Small Business and Information Technology, putting Rep. Diane St. Onge in the chair.
Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton also gives special attention to small-business growth.
The old L&I panel was dominated by labor and labor issues. These topics now come under the economic development and workforce framework.
Rep. Jim DeCesare, who recently was the minority whip, will chair these twin subjects. Five-term Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr continues to chair the Senate counterpart.
Banking and insurance matters always loom large, like federal health programs undergoing redesign with major aftershocks to the Bluegrass. Rep. Bart Rowland is the new House chair, while Sen. Tom Buford heads the sister committee.
Back on top for the Energy Committee is Rep. Jim Gooch. Rep. Kim Moser, an entering member, heads Medicaid Review. On the major subject of Kentucky’s ailing pensions, look for Rep. Brian Linder as a key voice, heading two committees that focus on retirement system problems.
Other GOP House members who are first-time chairs include Reps. Bart Rowland, Kenny Imes, Michael Lee Meredith, Jerry T. Miller, Richard Health, Marie Rader and Donna Mayfield.
Budget subcommittees actively review state spending, shaping priorities for the next budget. New House Republicans in chairing roles are Reps. Jill York, Suzanne Miles, Tommy Turner, Jason Nemes, Regina Bunch, James Tipton, Sal Santoro, Russell Webber, Phil Moffett, Myron Dossett, Stan Lee, Ken Upchurch, Lynn Bechler, Daniel Elliott, Tim Couch, Matt Castlen, Danny Bentley, John Blanton and Brandon Reed.
Four leaders on the landscape will also bring ideas to reform and improve. These are Attorney General Andy Beshear, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and State Auditor Mike Harmon.
More rumbles will be felt as the 2017 short session unfolds.
Top leaders speculate on a special autumn meeting of the General Assembly to reform the stale, aged tax code, plus dealing decisively with the state pension mega-debt.
With another dash of irony, these hot considerations could come shortly after the total eclipse of the sun, all of this giving a whole new meaning to climate change. ■
Bob Babbage and Julie Babbage are with Babbage Cofounder, a leading government relations firm.