Five takeaways from Week 1 of the Ky. General Assembly

01/13/2013 01:27 PM

Leadership races were decided. . Lawmakers got their committee assignments. And priorities were outlined. .

Overall, Week 1 of the Kentucky General Assembly went smoothly, capped off by a political love fest at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce annual legislative kick-off dinner Thursday night. This followed senators of both parties breaking bread together at a luncheon and a Wednesday night dinner at the governor’s mansion for legislative leaders in which the seating arrangements alternated Republican-Democrat

All of it was aimed at setting a cooperative tone for the rest of the 30-day legislative session that picks back up on Feb. 5. The big question whispered in the Capitol hallways, though, was “How long will it last?”

Here are four other takeaways from Week 1:

There still seems to be a David Williams obsession

While he wasn’t mentioned by name very often during the Chamber of Commerce Dinner, former Senate President David Williams might have well been the guest of honor.

The governor’s appointment of Williams to a judgeship that took him out of Frankfort was referenced four times in speeches, including by his successor as president, Sen. Robert Stivers. Stivers thanked Gov. Steve Beshear for making the move — twice.

Beshear said this was the first time in five years he was looking forward to a legislative session, a clear dig at his former political nemisis. And House Speaker Greg Stumbo quipped that his jokes wouldn’t be as funny this year without his fall guy, Williams. And the phrase “new day in Frankfort” was used so often it could have become the inspiration for a new drinking game.

It was enough to seem gratuitous — a kind of political necrophilia in which leaders seemed more interested in rubbing it in and making Williams an excuse for the last five years of infighting and inaction on many issues.

Bipartisanship easier in Week 1 than party unity

Leadership races sometimes get more personal than normal election campaigns. After all, these contests are decided among colleagues who are supposed to be on the same “team.”

House Democrats made history by electing the first woman to a House leadership position, Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, as the Democratic caucus chairman. In the process, though, they ousted Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, from that post — the second such time he has been unseated from that job over the last eight years.

Damron has said that he has no plans to switch parties after being rebuked. And he received a softer landing this time than in 2007 when he lost the leadership election to then-Rep. Charlie Hoffman. Democratic leaders, including Jody Richards who was House Speaker at the time, left Damron off the powerful House Appropriations and Revenue Committee on which he had previously served. This time, House Democratic leaders gave Damron a spot on that panel, though they didn’t give him one of the two open budget review subcommittee chairmanships.

The question moving forward, though, is whether Damron rallies other conservative Democrats to press the caucus to move to the right, especially on social issues. In 2004, Damron was among 30 conservatives in the majority party who formed a group calling themselves the “Commonwealth Democrats.” The group served as formal way to underscore those lawmakers’ support for pro-gun and pro-life legislation, as well as a fiscally conservative approach to the state budget. The group eventually faded, but with the House make-up at its closest split since then — 55 Democrats to 44 Republicans and one open seat in a GOP-leaning district — a conservative Democratic group could tip the balance on certain bills.

Meanwhile, House Republicans took their committee assignments without complaint on Friday. Even though they lost proportional representation on the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee and Judiciary Committee, they picked up seats on the Health and Welfare Committee. Plus, each freshman Republican received their top choices for committee assignments and a vice chairmanship on a panel.

In fact, House Speaker Greg Stumbo said he worked “closely” with House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover of Jamestown:

Deal on projects won’t necessarily mean new day for universities

Perhaps no announcement reinforced the so-called “new day in Frankfort” than the press conference Thursday that brought 32 lawmakers — 17 Republicans and 15 Democrats — to stand behind Beshear and university presidents.

The announcement was that the legislature would pass a bill to allow six of the public universities to float bonds to build 11 projects, including $110 million in renovations to Commonwealth Stadium.

Two lawmakers confirmed to Pure Politics that Beshear was reluctant at first to sign onto the deal. But once Stivers and the Republican Senate caucus gave the OK, Beshear got on board, the legislators said. Stivers told Pure Politics the reason the caucus gave the thumbs up this time and not last year when they were concerned about adding more debt was because if university donors were wiling to step up, so should the legislators.

The deal is good for universities in the short run and it has provided them a template for them to lay the groundwork for future projects.

But it’s unlikely that legislative leaders will back a plan to give universities the authority to sell bonds without the legislature’s OK. Here’s how Stumbo put it:

Hemp gains momentum

One other issue that had a big opening week, was the push to lay the groundwork for industrial hemp in Kentucky if the federal government ever legalizes it.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a former House Republican, has made that his top priority of the session. On Friday, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce announced it supports the effort.

That same day, Republican Sen. Paul Hornback of Shelbyville filed Senate Bill 50 that outlines the licensing process for future hemp growers. It starts with five co-sponsors, including two Republican leaders (Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer and GOP Caucus Chairman Dan Seum) and three Democratic Senators (Walter Blevins, Denise Harper Angel and Robin Webb).

And Hoover, the House Republican leader, made a pitch for the effort at the Chamber dinner Thursday night:

Tribute and a call for perspective

This isn’t necessarily a political takeaway, it is worth nothing that tragedy can sometimes add perspective.

Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, asked her colleagues for a moment of silence on Friday for the four children and their father who died earlier in the week when the fire they were using for warmth got out of control, as the Herald-Leader reported.

Amid all the political jockeying, whispering and pontificating, Combs and, later, Rep. Keith Hall of Pike County, reminded their colleagues of the poverty that is all too common in the commonwealth:

About Ryan Alessi

Ryan Alessi joined cn|2 in May 2010 as senior managing editor and host of Pure Politics. He is now pursuing an advanced degree in non-fiction writing from Murray State University and is a regular contributor to Pure Politics. Ryan has covered politics for more than 14 years, including seven years as a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Ryan can be reached at purepolitics@twcable.com or @mycn2 on Twitter.

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