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State House Takeover Has Business Leaders In Kentucky Upbeat

Gov. Matt Bevin and state Republicans on Election Night 2016.
Gov. Matt Bevin and state Republicans on Election Night 2016.

With Republicans’ sweeping victories in Kentucky Tuesday night, the party will now have control over the entire legislative agenda in Frankfort.

That has advocates for business excited.

“I can get people fired up even before we won this House," Gov. Matt Bevin told radio host Lee Cruse on Lexington's WVLK on Wednesday morning. "I’m going to have it so much easier to help make this vision come to fruition.”

His vision centers on making Kentucky the go-to state for locating and growing businesses. And about that ease with which he can push his agenda? He's probably right.

State Republicans on Tuesday pummeled Democrats in House races, turning a 53-47 Democratic majority into a 64-36 Republican tilt.

“All of a sudden, because there is a super majority in both the House and the Senate, and a Republican in the governor’s mansion, several of the core priorities the business community has long fought for have become very possible," said Sarah Davasher-Wisdom, chief operating officer for Greater Louisville Inc., the metro chamber of commerce.

She said the group now has support in Frankfort for its top agenda items. Those include so-called right-to-work legislation, changes to workers’ compensation laws, pension reform, adding caps in tort law, and legislation to enable the creation of charter schools in Kentucky.

Taken together, they would change the landscape for businesses – and workers – in the commonwealth.

And that has advocates for unions pushing back.

“These are laws that, through undermining union members’ abilities to bargain and their bargaining power, have the effect of lowering wages and weakening benefits and making workplaces less safe, not just for union members for every working person in Kentucky," said Caitlin Lally, communications director for the UFCW-Local 227.

Chamber Opposes RFRA, Transgender Bathroom Bills

But in some other states under Republican control, the debate over such "pro-business" legislation can be obscured by the economic and business ramifications of social-issue bills.

In Indiana, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act initially allowed businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ patrons. The backlash was so fierce that Governor Mike Pence agreed to alter it to explicitly ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

And in North Carolina, a law requiring transgender people to use the bathroom that matches the sex listed on their birth certificates has led to substantial protest and economic loss. The NBA moved the all-star game from the state, and the NCAA relocated seven championship events from the state.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Republican House leader Jeff Hoover wouldn't say whether the new majority would introduce bills along those lines.

“Our focus is going to be on policy that drives Kentucky economically, that makes Kentucky a better place to live and to work and to create jobs," Hoover said. "That’s what our focus is going to be.”

If they do, they’d have an enemy in Louisville’s chamber of commerce. Davasher-Wisdom said the group opposes so-called religious freedom and transgender bathroom bills and would lobby against them.

“In almost every single case, we’ve seen a negative economic impact from these bills," she said.

With a 30-day legislative session coming up early next year, it’s unlikely Kentucky Republicans would try to do it all.

But after Tuesday, they have the option.

Stephen George is President and CEO of Louisville Public Media. Email Stephen at sgeorge@lpm.org.