12 for 2012: A dozen Kentucky political plotlines to follow in the new year

01/04/2012 07:53 AM

We’re barely into 2012 and the political news is already flying: the start of the General Assembly, Gov. Steve Beshear’s State of the Commonwealth Address Wednesday night, the swearing in of the new statewide officials on Monday — even the unbelievably close finish in the Republican Iowa caucuses Tuesday night.

In Kentucky, here are a dozen storylines to keep track of this year:

1. *What’s government’s role again? *
In Frankfort, as in Washington, lawmakers will be forced to confront the most fundamental questions about which programs and projects government should fund and how it should prioritize spending — especially amid the lingering downturn. At the same time, the shadow of public debt continues to loom large.

There will be winners and losers with both the state government strapped for cash and the federal government leveraged to the tune of $15.1 trillion … and counting. Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, will be right in the middle of it in Washington as the House Appropriations Chairman, as will Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In Frankfort, the legislature must craft the next two-year state budget of somewhere of about $19 billion. Along the way, they will likely debate how to change the public employee pension system, how to cover the cost of major bridge construction projects and whether education money should be cut.

Look for the fundamental clash of cutting spending to reduce the debt and maintaining spending for programs and projects to underscore most of the debates in Washington, Frankfort and on the campaign trails for every office from the U.S. presidency to the Kentucky legislature.

2. Can’t they all just get along?
To get that two-year budget passed, legislators will have to cooperate. Same goes for pension reform, fighting drugs, a constitutional amendment allowing gambling and redrawing the legislative and congressional district lines.

Much of the focus will be on the relationship between Senate President David Williams and Gov. Steve Beshear after last fall’s governor’s race. During the campaign, the two men proved they weren’t big fans of each other.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, can work with both of them but isn’t exactly an ally to either.

So either those leaders will have to get along, or enough rank-and-file lawmakers will work together to push the legislation through in spite of any stalemates among leadership.

3. *The Tea Party effect — part III *
2010 was the year of the Tea Party. In Kentucky, that meant the election of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and several other political newcomers focused on reining in government spending, such as Lewis County Judge-Executive Thomas Massie.

In 2011, the tea party movement sputtered a bit, with Phil Moffett failing to raise much money and coming up short in a low-turnout primary in his effort to swipe the GOP nomination for governor from Williams. Two other tea party-backed candidates Bill Johnson and John Kemper won their primaries but failed to gain widespread support in the general election for secretary of state and auditor, respectively.

So 2012 in Kentucky will be a chance for the tea party to show whether the movement has staying power and can manifest itself in state legislative races this time. Several primaries already are shaping up. Plus, someone like Massie could become a new standard bearer if he runs for Congress in Northern Kentucky — and does well.

4. Northern Kentucky Republican primaries.
That brings us to the hotbed of GOP primaries — some of which include candidates with strong tea party support: Northern Kentucky.

*Congressman Geoff Davis *created a Republican derby in the region with his surprise announcement last month not to seek a fifth term this year. A whole host of Republicans expressed interest. So far, state Rep. Alecia Webb-Edgington of Fort Wright and Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore are in. And while some have taken themselves out of the running already, the field is probably not set yet.

Beyond congress, an open seat for the 23rd state Senate district in Kenton County has at least three GOP contenders: Taylor Mill businessman Chris McDaniel, former cosmetics executive Shawn Baker and Fort Mitchell Councilman Will Terwort.

Former Boone County commissioner and tea party stalwart Cathy Flaig is challenging state Rep. Addia Wuchner of Florence, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for auditor last year.

Webb-Edgington’s 63rd House district seat is attracting interest from former Lakeside Park councilwoman Diane St. Onge and former assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Dusing, among others.

And Republican Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown landed a challenge from Rick Hostetler, who is active in the Scott-Grant County Tea Party.

5. Beshear’s boldness?
Beyond just getting along with lawmakers, Beshear will be watched for his creativity and effort this year. He’s coming off a big win in the governor’s race and has some political capital to spend.

So far, he’s kept his plans under wraps beyond saying he’d push for a constitutional amendment to allow gambling and a bill to raise the student drop out age — a measure first lady Jane Beshear has been pushing for years.

The governor’s inauguration speech dropped a few hints about maybe, possibly, perhaps addressing the state’s tax code at some point. But many observers are wondering whether Beshear has a vision for more sweeping reforms in his second and final term that would move Beshear from being a manager during hard times to leading Kentucky into good times.

The next checkpoint for that is Wednesday night during Beshear’s State of the Commonwealth Address.

6. The Abramson effect.
The newest high-ranking addition to the Beshear administration is Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, the former Louisville mayor.

It’s still unclear what Abramson’s specific role will be. But given his big personality, he will have one.

Still, Abramson proved to be a big-picture guy in Louisville, focusing on efforts to expand the airport, bring in a UPS hub and pave the way for a downtown arena. And that sometimes seemed to come at the expense of some of the details — management of the sewer district, overtime lawsuits by the police and firefighters and the hiring of a city aide who didn’t show up to work.

And the question is whether Beshear most needs another big-picture person in his inner circle right now or someone who will sweat the details.

7. Clash of the cartographers.

Lawmakers begin in earnest this week negotiating the legislative, congressional and judicial lines for the next decade.

Redistricting because of the 2010 Census numbers will determine a lot about who runs for what legislative district and whether incumbents are pitted against each other.

And not agreeing on the maps in the next two weeks could force lawmakers to bump back the candidate filing deadline. Even if they do agree, the maps could end up challenged in court as they have in past redistricting rounds.

8. Delegation of authority.

Kentucky’s congressional delegation has a lot of power heading into 2012. Beyond McConnell and Rogers, who will play big roles in Congress, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield chairs the powerful House subcommittee on power and energy. Look for more EPA-related hearings there.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul will not only be splitting his time between Congress and Kentucky, but he’ll also be on and off the presidential campaign trail helping his father.

And look for Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth of Louisville on the cable TV circuit more often as he ramps up his role as the Democrats’ messenger.

9. Rural vs. urban.

In the debate over state resources, watch for urban lawmakers to throw some weight around as they try to lock up money for big projects: Louisville’s bridges and the Brent Spence Bridge in Northern Kentucky, not to mention the Northern Kentucky convention center.

11. The university presidents’ fraternity.
Gov. Steve Beshear scuttled the University of Louisville hospital merger. That will put more heat on UofL President James Ramsey, who just got a big raise from his university’s foundation.

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto starts his first full calendar year in that position. He’s already made a push for more state money for UK buildings — but not a new athletic arena.

And former Gov. Paul Patton could end up joining the fraternity of public university presidents if his University of Pikeville gets absorbed into the system as some want.

12. New brand of leadership?

Finally, Gen-X arrived in a big way last fall with the election of 33-year-old Alison Lundergan Grimes, 37-year-old Adam Edelen and 39-year-old James Comer as statewide officers, joining Attorney General Jack Conway from the MTV generation.

Those four, in addition to a host of young lawmakers elected in 2010, injects Frankfort with some new energy. And this year will be their first chance to lead. So keep your eye out for whether the new bosses are the same as the old bosses … or not.


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