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Political Tension Starts Early in the Kentucky State House

Legislative Research Commission

Despite all the handwringing over political control of the state House, no blood was shed in the Kentucky Capitol on the first day of the 2016 General Assembly session.

There were no party-switches and no resignations on Tuesday.

But there was squabbling.

Democrats hold a 50-46 House majority, keeping pace ahead of a Republican Party threatening to wrest control of the last Democratic-controlled legislative chamber in the South. Four special elections will be held on March 8 to fill open seats held previously by two representatives from each party.

The first day of the session showed hints of the fights to come in the chamber.

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, a Republican from Jamestown, balked when Democratic House Speaker Stumbo moved to adopt the House’s rules for the legislative session.

“It’s clear to many of us that the rules we had in place last year and the way they were carried out was not fair,” Hoover said.

Hoover objected to the number of committee assignments Republicans received last year; many were tapped to sit on only one or two committees, and Hoover argues that some committees don't have proportional political representation.

Hoover warned that adopting the same rules sets a bad precedent for the Democratic majority, whose control has slipped amid two resignations and two defections to the opposing party.

“I think we all have to recognize there is no longer, Mr. Speaker, a clear majority in this chamber,” Hoover said.

Stumbo and Rep. Rocky Adkins, the Democratic floor leader, assured that they would sit down with Hoover and look again at the committee assignments. But Hoover maintained that the discussion was "not a good start.”

After the House adjourned, Hoover and Stumbo disagreed over whether the chamber could elect a new speaker this year.

If Republicans sweep the four March special elections, the chamber's membership would be split 50-50. The GOP was buoyed by the November election of Gov. Matt Bevin, just the second Republican to hold the office in more than 40 years.

Over the past month, two House Democrats switched to the Republican side, and two resigned for appointments awarded by Bevin.

Hoover told reporters that a simple majority — 51 out of 100 votes — could elect a new speaker, even mid-session.

Stumbo, in his own impromptu press conference, disagreed.

“I would expect that might be his interpretation,” Stumbo said, pointing to a provision in the state Constitution that says the Speaker is elected in odd-numbered years. “It’s pretty clear that the president and the speaker are chosen biennially.”

The House showdown will complicate legislation on major issues facing Kentucky, including the struggling pension system and the state budget. That may especially be true until the March 8 special elections pass.

Meanwhile, the state Senate adjourned without drama. In that body, the Republicans have a firm 27-11 majority. Senate leaders are scheduled to roll out their priority bills on Wednesday. The list will likely include right-to-work,medical review panels and repealing the prevailing wage.

The legislative session is scheduled to close on April 12.

(Image via the Legislative Research Commission)