5 key questions about the potential life after David Williams in Frankfort

10/25/2012 12:05 PM

By putting David Williams on its list of names, the nominating committee in the 40th judicial circuit took the official first step toward one of the biggest transitions of power in Frankfort over the last decade.

Williams has been a fixture in the power structure of state government for 12 years. His clashes with Democrats, from Paul Patton to Steve Beshear, are well-documented.

Perhaps equally notably — yet often overshadowed — has been his political acumen, which reshaped the legislative landscape. Until running for governor in 2011, Williams got the best of the other side across the legislative negotiating table more often than not. And he relentlessly campaigned, strategized and raised money for Republican senators and candidates during elections.

Regardless of Kentuckians’ opinions of Williams, his departure would create a huge void — and raises some interesting questions.

1. Who replaces him as Senate president?

This is the obvious first question. And the first name is the obvious one: Sen. Robert Stivers of Manchester, who serves as Republican floor leader. He would be next in line in the Republican hierarchy, is well respected by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Stivers is close to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset and will have deep support from incoming senators, such as Chris Girdler, Rogers’ district director who is running unopposed this fall in the 15th Senate district.

Beyond Stivers, the names of Sen. David Givens, who is seen as a Republican rising star, and Sen. Joe Bowen of Owensboro have been mentioned as potential contenders for leadership positions, including Senate president.

And Sen. Damon Thayer, the Georgetown Republican and former Williams loyalist who clashed with the Senate president, has said he is interested. Thayer said Thursday he is keeping his options open for all leadership positions.

2. Who will be Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman?

Sen. Tom Jensen, a Republican from London, already is leaving the Senate to become a judge in his home area. That leaves a vacancy for the head of the powerful judiciary committee.

And if Williams departs the Senate, that would leave just two Republican lawyers — Stivers and Senate President Pro Temp Katie Stine. Both of them currently hold leadership positions that usually don’t lend themselves to handling a chairmanship as well.

Plus, a competitive leadership race for Senate presidency would likely result in members of the Republican caucus picking sides. And to the victor go the spoils. Committee chairmanships are a prime currency in that situation.

Currently, Sen. John Schickel of Union looks to have the inside track to that chairmanship. He serves on that committee and is a former U.S. marshal and former Boone County jailer.

3. Will David Williams retire from the legislature in order to avoid a pension increase?

Over the last three years, Williams has called for undoing a 2005 bill that allowed lawmakers to get bigger pensions if they switched to a higher paying government job, like a judgeship or commissioner in the executive branch.

That provision, known as reciprocity, allows a former legislator to count his or her time of service in the General Assembly with the highest three years of salary — presumably from the other government job — as part of the calculation of retirement benefits.

But if Williams retires from the General Assembly, he would end up with a legislative pension based solely on his highest three years of salary — he made about $46,000 this year — and his 28 years of legislative service.

Five Republican House candidates even issued a statement this month calling on Williams to do that, indicating how much of a sensitive political issue pensions have become this election. The statement said:

“Should Senate President David Williams accept appointment to the circuit judgeship in his home district, we encourage him to set a strong example for future legislators by retiring from the legislature so he will not be eligible to receive pension reciprocity he has fought to repeal in the Senate.”

4. How will Democrats factor into the Senate presidency race?

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has generally said he remains out of legislative leadership races. Indeed, they can be some of the most politically charged races in Frankfort.

But Beshear has said publicly he respects and has worked well with Stivers. And in the 2012 session, Beshear worked with Thayer on the casino gambling amendment bill.

It remains to be seen whether working across party lines will be seen as a positive or negative within the Republican caucus ranks.

Beshear and other Democratic leaders, like House Speaker Greg Stumbo, have less of a relationship with Givens, who was first elected to the Senate in 2008.

5. How will a new Senate president affect legislative priorities in 2013?

This somewhat depends on who gets the job, of course.

It also depends on what the make-up of the state House is. If Republicans drastically cut into Democrats control or take the state House, an emboldened GOP could push a more aggressive agenda.

Otherwise, there will be a learning curve for a new Senate president. And that could mean delaying legislative redistricting until 2014. Some Senate Republicans, including Thayer, want to get it over with in next year’s 30-day session, as do House Democratic leaders. But Republican House Leader Jeff Hoover has said the legislature should concentrate on tackling pension reform and potentially tax reform, which is currently being studied by a task force called by the governor.

A change in the Senate president could give a lawmakers an excuse to push back the contentious re-drawing of legislative district lines to the beginning of 2014 — the year of the next legislative elections.


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