Senate's David Williams wants new bully pulpit

promises job creation, tax reform

jcheves@herald-leader.comOctober 23, 2011 

  • David L. Williams

    Party: Republican

    Born: May 28, 1953

    Residence: Burkesville

    Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Kentucky; law degree, University of Louisville

    Occupation: Attorney

    Elected office: State Senator, 1987-present; state Rep., 1985-86.

    Family: Wife, Robyn; two stepchildren

    Web site:

This is the third in a series of stories about the candidates for governor.

FRANKFORT — As the Republican nominee for governor, David Williams pledges to tame an out-of-control state bureaucracy.

"Government has gotten too large, too intrusive, it costs too much and it's stifling job creation," he says in "Tough," one of his television commercials.

What Williams doesn't advertise is that he's been one of the three most powerful men in state government for more than a decade. Governors and House speakers come and go, but Williams is a fixture. As the only president of the Kentucky Senate since 2000, he knows how to steer the statehouse and enjoys it.

After his father suffered a stroke, Williams spoke to doctors about the quality of medical care and sponsored a law that set standards for Kentucky hospitals to be certified as Primary Stroke Centers.

After his step-daughter fell behind on her multiplication tables, Williams sponsored a law calling for higher expectations for students in math, reading and science. It also replaced the statewide test measuring schools' progress with a new test, starting next spring, that measures individual students' progress.

After leaders in Whitley County said they needed a civic center, Williams tucked $12 million in bonded debt spending into the state budget for what would become The Arena at the David L. Williams Southeast Kentucky Agriculture and Exposition Center.

"There won't be anything better than this facility outside one of the large metro areas," Williams told local residents in 2008 as the state funding was announced.

Williams is best known for thwarting the plans of Democratic governors and House speakers. Like his mentor, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., he excels at obstruction. In recent years, he led the state Senate in rejecting slot machines at horse racetracks, which was the foundation of Gov. Steve Beshear's 2007 campaign.

But far from distrusting Frankfort, Williams respects powerful governors. He names Bert Combs, Wallace Wilkinson, Louie Nunn and Paul Patton as those he most admires. (This disclosure might surprise Patton, a Democrat with whom Williams warred a decade ago and once called "mouthy drunk.")

Those governors had ambitious agendas — better schools, universities, roads, parks and public services — and they negotiated with the legislature to accomplish them, he said.

"These were big thinkers, these were visionaries," Williams said in a recent interview at Kentucky Republican Party headquarters.

By contrast, he said, he's disgusted that Beshear has done so little.

"I've watched Steve Beshear," he said. "I talked to him before he was sworn in, down in Nashville at the Music City Bowl. I told him, 'You can decide you want to do something or be something.' And he decided he wanted to be something."

Voters will choose on Nov. 8 between Williams, Beshear and independent Gatewood Galbraith, a Lexington lawyer. Polls suggest Beshear is far ahead.

For Williams, one problem is that Kentuckians are more accustomed to seeing him block things, not do things, said Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky.

"There aren't a lot of examples of people who successfully moved from an obstructionist role into a leadership role. Actually, I'm struggling to think of an example," Voss said.

Opposition leader

For any bill to become law in Kentucky, it must pass through the Democratic-led House and the Republican-led Senate on its way to the governor's desk.

Little moves through the Senate without a nod from Williams. Elected to represent a half-dozen rural counties along the Tennessee state line, the Senate's Republican caucus has effectively made Williams a one-man veto on state government.

Partial public financing for gubernatorial campaigns? "Welfare for politicians," Williams said, and it was defunded in 2002.

More than $1 billion in new taxes proposed over a decade by Democratic governors and House leaders? Unnecessary, Williams said, swatting down the individual attempts.

Slot machines? Williams said in 2009 that the slots bill would die in the Senate budget committee, and it did.

Once Williams digs in his heels, the game is over. The legislature has returned for eight special sessions during his tenure, often because standoffs between the Senate and House kept it from finishing its work in regular sessions. Special sessions cost $63,500 a day.

"Three times we've left Frankfort without passing a budget, which we're constitutionally required to do, and that's directly due to all the fights David starts with people," said state Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington.

Critics say Williams opposes anything Democrats want regardless of what's best for Kentucky.

In 2008, for example, Williams scotched $300 million in taxes proposed by Beshear and the House, including an increase in the cigarette tax. Williams declared victory. But the resulting state budget brought $172 million in cuts for public schools, according to the Council for Better Education.

"It's one of those things that sounds good — cut taxes, promote personal responsibility — but the other side of that is that we're cutting schools, we're reducing or eliminating these crucial services for our children," said state Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville.

On the other hand, facing an even worse $456 million budget shortfall the next year, Williams went along with new cigarette and alcohol taxes that Beshear requested. Before the vote, Williams told his GOP caucus "it's the thing to do in these hard economic times."

It's unfair to castigate Williams for leading the opposition, said state Sen. Bob Leeper, an independent from Paducah who caucuses with the Republicans. "David came into a very unique role, an historic role if you will, when Republicans finally won control of the Senate after all those years of one-party rule in Frankfort," Leeper said.

"Obviously, it would be easier for the governor if he wasn't there," Leeper said. "But the system is designed to have checks and balances, even if the person leading the minority gets stuck looking like he's just getting in the way."

A jobs agenda

Williams' own goals for Kentucky are ambitious, although he tried and failed in recent years to push most of them though the General Assembly in the form of bills.

He wants a panel of economic experts to rewrite the state tax code so that individual and corporate income taxes are lower in Kentucky than in most other states, giving Kentucky the advantage when companies look for their new location.

Currently, Kentucky gives away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to lure employers on a case-by-case basis, without much evidence to prove success, Williams said.

Still, he went along with Beshear's revamping of tax incentive programs in 2009, and he was a major proponent for creating the state's Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program for mega-developments. But he calls himself skeptical about tax breaks overall.

"Every time you have a (tax) incentive granted, it's just an admission that your overall tax structure is not enough to be competitive," Williams said in January on Kentucky Educational Television.

Asking how Frankfort can raise more tax money for the state budget is the wrong question, he said in the recent interview. The right question, he said, is how to reduce Kentuckians' dependence on government.

Kentucky is compelled to throw ever-larger wads of cash at social services, Medicaid and prisons to cope with its growing poor population, he said. The state won't move forward until it creates a business-friendly environment with lower taxes, fewer regulations and right-to-work rules that make union organizing more difficult, he said.

"The truth of the matter is, Kentucky is a state that's in decline when compared to other states in terms of per capita income and job growth," he said. "The only thing that will help that are well-paying jobs in the private sector, and the government can't create well-paying jobs in the private sector. It can only create the atmosphere."

Williams also wants to change the troubled pension system for state workers to address its billions of dollars in unfunded liability. Kentucky can't afford to pay more lifetime pensions to people retiring in their 50s, he said. He favors putting future state workers in private savings accounts, moving the burden to them to save enough for retirement.

Williams said he could accomplish his goals as governor by using his post as a bully pulpit and bringing House and Senate leaders to his office for regular consultations. Beshear has failed to do any of that, he said.

"He's never had an agenda. He's never engaged the legislature. He's never gone out and tried to use the governor's office as a discussion point to make any sort of major changes, or even minor changes," Williams said. "He's the one who's been the obstructionist."

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