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What To Expect From the Kentucky General Assembly Session

Frankfort, Kentucky - State Capitol Building
Henryk Sadura
Frankfort, Kentucky - State Capitol Building

There’s a long road ahead in the upcoming legislative session in Frankfort, and several key players in Kentucky’s legislature will be driving the wagon.

The session, which begins Tuesday, will be newly elected Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s first. His top task will be to craft a proposed state budget — a challenging endeavor considering over a billion dollars in state contributions requested by the state pension systems and looming costs of expanded Medicaid coverage.

Former Democratic state Treasurer Jonathan Miller, now an attorney with Frost Brown Todd, said Bevin’s budget will be the state’s first insight into what kind of governor he’s going to be.

“The budget is a moral document. The budget outlines priorities for how you think the best way to address the state’s great problems,” Miller said.

During his campaign, Bevin said that the state will have to undergo “belt-tightening across the board.”

“There is going to have to be what is often referred to in the global economy as austerity measures in the state of Kentucky,” Bevin said during the final debate at KET.

Miller singled out Bevin’s appointments of state budget director John Chilton, chief of staff Blake Brickman and executive cabinet Secretary Scott Brinkman as good picks to assemble “a solid, bipartisan” document.

“Some of us who were fearful that [Bevin] was going to run a really right-wing-type, tea party, ideological government have been comforted to a degree by the people he’s surrounded himself with,” Miller said.

“And then there are examples of him stripping away voting rights by executive order and being seen as kowtowing to Kim Davis, and so those raise alarms that he’s going to be shooting for a more divisive agenda.”

On Wednesday, Bevin announced that he would be transforming Kentucky’s expanded Medicaid system. Although he provided few details, the governor said he is working with the federal government to modify the Medicaid expansion — initiated by former Gov. Steve Beshear through the Affordable Care Act — which covers more than 500,000 low-income Kentuckians.

Bevin has said he wants to model Kentucky's Medicaid expansion on that of Indiana, which requires most enrollees to pay a portion of their premiums.


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There Will Be Politics

Democrats’ slim majority in the state House is the only thing standing in the way of a clear legislative path for Republicans.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo will be challenged with maintaining order in his Democratic ranks while pushing for his own agenda in an increasingly Republican capitol building.

“The Democrats in the House are the sole source of power for Democrats in Frankfort,” said former Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican.

Democrats do also have the statewide officers of attorney general, held by Andy Beshear, and secretary of state, held by Allison Lundergan Grimes.

But when it comes to the legislative process, Democrats will no longer have a governor to threaten to veto legislation, make tactical appointments or raise money for the state party. And their numbers have dwindled since Bevin’s election: When the legislative session begins, there will be 50 Democrats and 46 Republicans.

“You gotta take care of your allies and you have to build that coalition, to not just pass legislation but to put yourself in the best position to get reelected,” Grayson said.

Since Bevin's election, Republicans have made flipping the House a priority. Two state representatives have switched their party affiliation from Democrat to Republican — Louisville Rep. Denny Butler and Providence Rep. Jim Gooch.

Bevin has also been successful in picking off two Democratic representatives with appointments: He named Hopkinsville Rep. John Tilley to be secretary of the Justice Cabinet and gave South Shore Rep. Tanya Pullin an administrative judge position in Bowling Green.

Bevin will set the date for special elections for representatives who have resigned, which also includes new Republican Auditor Mike Harmon and Republican Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.

Labor, Charter Schools Also on the Agenda

Bevin has made right-to-work, repealing the prevailing wage and charter schools top priorities of his administration. The Republican-led Senate has approved legislation on those fronts in recent years, only to be thwarted by the state House.

Miller said Stumbo has two paths to choose from in the upcoming legislative session. One is that he works with the Republican leadership.

“That could be a path to show the state that having the divided government with checks and balances is the most successful kind of government,” Miller said. “Folks can disagree on some issues but when it comes to the future of the state they can get together and pass important bills.”

In the other scenario, Miller said, Stumbo could play a more traditional opposition role. There's recent precedent for that: Former Republican Senate President David Williams spent years thwarting the plans of Democratic governors.

“I think that’d be a much tougher path for the Speaker,” Grayson said. “I think the Speaker is a guy who’s always prided himself on being a dealmaker, on advancing the state and getting things passed and getting stuff done.”

On the other side of the capitol, the Republican-led Senate will have a better chance at passing conservative legislation under Bevin. Senate President Robert Stivers is at the helm of a Republican caucus which has 27 out of 38 seats in that chamber.

But Grayson said just because Stivers and Bevin are in the same party doesn’t mean they won’t disagree sometimes.

“The one thing that will be interesting is watching interaction between the state Senate, which has all those folks that have been around longer, who understand the issues better, have been engaged in the process longer than the new administration," he said.

Stivers has been president of the state Senate since 2012, when he assumed the post after Williams was appointed to a circuit judge position by then-Gov. Steve Beshear.

Stivers has been praised for working across the aisle despite being for many years the leader of the lone Republican stronghold in the capitol.

The chamber has for the past several years approved traditionally conservative legislation, including right-to-work, eliminating the prevailing wage, tort reform and anti-abortion measures such as informed consent.

The Democratic-led House has thwarted those measures, and as long as they maintain their majority, Miller said those bills will continue to fail.

“Those are issues that are really at the heart of what the Democratic Party stands for and Democrats are," he said. "It would seem to be a longshot to be able to pick enough Democrats off to be able to change things."