House Democrats unveil 2015 legislative agenda after holding 54-46 majority

11/05/2014 03:01 PM

FRANKFORT — A day after retaining their 54-46 majority in Kentucky House, Democratic leaders unveiled Wednesday an agenda for the 2015 session that, for the most part, mirrors past legislative priorities.

But there was one notable exception. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who had previously said expanded gaming legislation would be deemed House Bill 1, said he doesn’t believe lawmakers are fully on board with the idea of opening Kentucky’s borders to casino-style gambling.

Political factors are the chief obstacle. Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, would need four Republicans to join Democrats in voting for expanded gaming, and that’s only if the majority caucus votes in unison. The chances for such a bill are even more daunting in a Republican-controlled Senate that added two members to its 24-seat caucus on Tuesday, with a Democrat-held seat opening with the election of Sen. Walter Blevins, D-Morehead, as Rowan County judge-executive.

The $100,000 contribution by Churchill Downs Inc. to the Next Generation Leadership Fund, a 527 group whose goal was to help Republicans in state legislative races, also stymied expanded gaming’s chances this session, as The Courier-Journal’s Joe Gerth first reported in June.

“We had hoped that we could build a coalition with some members of the Republican caucus who want to see that issue brought to the front,” Stumbo told reporters Wednesday. “There was some political contributions that were made. I don’t know the story behind that. I don’t know why, but obviously it dampened that prospect with the members.

“Now, they might come back around on that issue. I’m not saying that they won’t, but as far as making that a front-page issue, I don’t think that there’s any support to do that right now.”

Still, he noted he supports expanded gambling, though he doesn’t believe the state needs to amend the constitution in order to allow it.

Issues on House Democrats’ legislative agenda include raising the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, pay equity for women, dealing with the state’s growing heroin epidemic, restoring non-violent felon voting rights, curbing dating violence, public-private partnerships and local-option sales taxes for specific community projects.

Stumbo also said the House is open to exploring the issuance of pension obligation bonds for the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System given the favorable rates on bonds.

“I think it’s time that we take a very strong look … at this concept that’s been promoted by some, most particularly in the teachers retirement system, of selling bonds and using those bonds to invest in the market, hoping that the rate of return will more than surpass what the payment on the bond is,” he said.

Some of the economic issues put forth by Democrats haven’t garnered much support among Republicans in the General Assembly, but Stumbo said he expects prospects to improve once lawmakers are out of an election cycle. On top of that, he said “more cuts are on the way” because the state’s budget is expected to see a revenue shortfall.

“In 2007, I believe it was what I was still downstairs (as attorney general), an increase in the minimum wage was passed, phased in over three years,” Stumbo said. “It was supported by the majority of members in this chamber, both Democrat and Republican, and a majority in the Senate by both Democrat and Republican, so what changed? What made an increase in the minimum wage so egregious? Probably the election cycle and the fact that it was an issue in the United States Senate race.”

The fate of the House has also been decided, Stumbo said, noting he plans to send letters to all who sought seats in the 100-member House.

Although they held steady, Kentucky House Democrats avoided a GOP wave that swept Republicans to a U.S. Senate majority and propelled U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to a 15-point victory against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and a possible ascent to majority leader. House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, noted that House Democrats in West Virginia held the same 54-46 majority in their chamber but lost 20 members in Tuesday’s elections.

“We started early on, over four years ago, talking about the differences between Kentucky Democrats and Kentucky Democratic policies and those of Washington, and the voters heard us,” Stumbo said. “There’s no question about that. We had a lot of money spent against us. We had a lot of political give and take in the process, but the fact of the matter is we started early with our message that we’re not like Washington.”

Stumbo, Adkins and House Majority Caucus Chair Sannie Overly, a Paris Democrat and running mate with gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway, said they would seek their leadership posts again in January.

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover saw a silver lining in his party’s inability to chip away at the Democrats’ margin. Tuesday marked the first time a minority party gained seats after legislative redistricting, which eliminated two from the GOP ranks and created six open seats. The parties split those vacancies while Republicans knocked off incumbent Reps. Jimmie Lee of Elizabethtown and Richard Henderson of Mt. Sterling. Democrat Cluster Howard defeated GOP Rep. Toby Herald of Beattyville by a slim 14-vote margin.

Hoover, R-Jamestown, said Republicans “look forward” to addressing major issues in the coming session.

“I have always and will continue to work in a bipartisan manner on issues that are important and have a direct impact on Kentuckians,” he said in a statement. “We have many important issues in our Commonwealth that need addressing, including comprehensive tax reform, and shoring up our teachers retirement system.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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