Taking a look back at some of the top Kentucky political stories of 2016

12/30/2016 02:20 PM

Politics in Kentucky are rarely boring, and 2016 continued to prove that.

From a surprising Republican supermajority in the state’s House of Representatives on Election Day to the indictment and eventual imprisonment of a Democratic cabinet-level official to the state’s first GOP presidential caucus, here’s a look at some of the top Kentucky political happenings from 2016:

Republicans take control of state’s House of Representatives for the first time since 1921

Kentucky GOP politicos were optimistic of their chances to wrest the speaker’s gavel from Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s hands in the Nov. 8 elections, but few, if any, expected the 17-seat tidal wave that swept Republicans into a 64-36 supermajority when all the votes were tallied.

The Kentucky House had been the only southern legislative chamber under Democratic control.

The seismic political power shift in Frankfort places the General Assembly firmly in Republican hands and puts the party’s agenda in play for the 2017 legislative session and beyond, with many observers openly predicting that the legislature’s lower chamber has been lost for at least a generation.

Legislative issues like right-to-work, prevailing wage repeal, charter schools and others seem poised for a quick trip to Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk for his signature in next year’s 30-day session.

Stumbo, a member of the House for 32 years and a former attorney general, was among the fallen Democrats on Election Day after outside groups, primarily the Republican State Leadership Committee, dumped a mountain of cash in his Appalachian district and pounded him on the airwaves for supporting Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and building an estimated six-figure public pension.

The Republican gains in this year’s election cycle propelled House Speaker-elect Jeff Hoover to the speaker’s dais, providing his 20-year legislative career, which includes 16 years as minority floor leader, a crowning political achievement.

Tim Longmeyer, official in both Beshear administrations, imprisoned for bribery

Longmeyer’s March 25 indictment on federal bribery charges sent shockwaves through the Capitol and tarnished his work as Gov. Steve Beshear’s Personnel Cabinet secretary and his efforts for Attorney General Andy Beshear’s campaign, which prosecutors say unwittingly received “straw” contributions as part of the scheme.

Former Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway’s gubernatorial campaign also unknowingly benefitted from such contributions, according to prosecutors.

Before his indictment, Longmeyer worked as deputy attorney general in Beshear’s first months in office.

Longmeyer, who received $203,500 in kickbacks from Lexington consulting firm MC Squared Consulting for helping secure work for it through the state employee insurance plan during his time as cabinet secretary, pleaded guilty about a month after his indictment and recently began a 70-month prison sentence.

The kickback scheme also involved Democratic consultant Larry O’Bryan, who pleaded guilty in September to federal bribery charges and admitted to receiving more than $642,000 between October 2011 and March 2014.

Drama escalates at the University of Louisville

The University of Louisville saw its share of controversies before the calendar turned to 2016, but this year saw the exit of former UofL President Jim Ramsey, a lawsuit challenging Bevin’s reorganization of the school’s board and at least a year of accreditation probation for the institution.

Bevin’s decision to reshuffle the school’s board of trustees included an agreement from Ramsey to offer his resignation. Beshear sued, winning in Franklin Circuit Court on Sept. 28 and awaiting Bevin’s appeal either at the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court.

Bevin has said he expects the legislature to approve the reorganization, making an appeal moot.

Earlier this month, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed UofL on accreditation probation for at least a year and up to two, citing concerns with trustee dismissals, presidential selection and evaluation and external political influence.

Weeks later and following a report by Auditor Mike Harmon of possible bylaw violation by the UofL Foundation, acting President Neville Pinto accepted the presidency at the University of Cincinnati.

McConnell remains Senate majority leader

After ascending to the top position in the Senate, national pundits believed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hold on the chamber might have been short-lived in a difficult electoral environment with 24 Republicans up for re-election Nov. 8 and expectations that Clinton would top Trump for the presidency.

But McConnell and the GOP stayed in the majority on Election Day, losing seats in Illinois and New Hampshire to maintain a slim 52-member majority.

Electoral prospects for Senate Republicans are rosier in the 2018 midterms, with 23 Democrats and two independents who caucus with Democrats up for re-election to the GOP’s eight.

State Supreme Court rules 5-2 against Bevin’s current-year budget cuts

UofL wasn’t the only issue over which Beshear took Bevin to court.

After the governor ordered 4.5 percent cuts to state universities’ fourth-quarter allotments in the final months of fiscal year 2016, Beshear filed a lawsuit accusing Bevin of overstepping his authority.

The attorney general lost the first round in Franklin Circuit Court, but the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in a 5-2 decision Sept. 22 that Bevin couldn’t alter university budgets without a deficit, in part because the legislature made the institutions “independent bodies politic with their own expenditures.”

The high court’s decision returned $18 million to state universities.

Republicans hold first presidential caucus after Paul withdraws from race

Looking for a way to run for president and re-election, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul convinced RPK to hold a presidential caucus this year rather than the traditional primary. State law prevents candidates from appearing more than once on the same ballot, and previous efforts to change that law to exclude federal offices from the prohibition were stymied in the Democrat-held House.

Paul ponied up $250,000 for the March 5 caucus, but he dropped out of the race days after the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses.

Trump, the president-elect, carried the Kentucky caucus with nearly 36 percent of the vote, followed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 31.6 percent.

It’s unclear whether state Republicans will hold another party-operated caucus in the next presidential cycle in 2020. More Republicans cast ballots in the caucus, 229,667, than in the 2008 and 2012 primaries — 197,793 and 176,160, respectively — despite some voter confusion on caucus procedures, including absentee voting.

Kentucky Democrats boxed out of two branches of state government

After losing gubernatorial, auditor and treasurer races in 2015, the Kentucky Democratic Party needed to rebound and retain its hold on the state House.

The combination of a better-funded Republican Party of Kentucky, well-armed outside groups and a presidential contest in which the Democratic candidate won just two of the state’s 120 counties kept that from happening.

Losing the House puts Kentucky Democrats in uncharted waters in modern history, with Republicans in control of the executive and legislative branches, the latter with supermajorities in the House and Senate.

Beshear and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes are the only Democrats in statewide office, and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth is the state party’s sole representative in Congress.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a Video Journalist for Spectrum News and covers Kentucky politics and all the goings-on at the State Capitol. Kevin was born and raised in Frankfort so he grew up around politics and has always had the drive to follow the political process and hold lawmakers accountable. Before joining Spectrum News Kevin covered government and politics for The State Journal in Frankfort. You can watch Kevin’s work weeknights at 7:00 and 11:30 on Pure Politics, available exclusively on Spectrum News, HD Channels 403 and 715. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135.

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