Legislature's top Republican and Kentucky's Democratic governor trade praise

jbrammer@herald-leader.comMarch 27, 2013 

FRANKFORT — When Robert Stivers II assumed the presidency of the Kentucky Senate in January after a 13-year tenure by the strong-willed David Williams, he pledged to bring about "a change in style."

"I'll leave it to other people to judge whether this was for the better or for the worse," a tired Stivers said early Wednesday a few minutes after the 2013 General Assembly came to an end at the stroke of midnight.

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who often was at odds with Williams but appointed him last fall to a circuit judgeship in south-central Kentucky, had only good things to say Wednesday about Stivers.

"President Stivers proved to be a trustworthy and reliable partner in the legislative process — willing to look at policy first and politics second," Beshear said of the Republican attorney from Clay County.

"We didn't always agree, but we could always have honest and open dialogue about any issue. As a result, we've just concluded one of the most productive sessions in years."

Beshear pointed to public pensions reform as a major accomplishment of this year's law-making session, along with allowing universities to issue bonds and making changes to last year's bill to curb prescription drug abuse.

Stivers said he thinks Beshear was more involved in this year's legislative session than any since Beshear took office in December 2007.

"He played a big part in several major pieces of legislation, especially the pensions. He was on the phone a great deal with us. He held many meetings.

"From my perspective, he was more active and involved than I've ever seen him."

Throughout this year's session, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have been vocal in their praise about the governing style of Stivers.

One of Stivers' staffers let reporters know when Democratic Sen. Kathy Stein of Lexington, one of the most liberal members in the chamber, said on a Lexington radio station that Stivers has brought civility to the Senate.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Stivers was willing to talk about key issues and negotiate with House Democrats.

"I think to Sen. Stivers' credit, he worked with the administration and did try to come to some reasonable resolution of the pension problem," Stumbo said.

"That was a bit of a change from what we had seen unfortunately from President Williams, particularly in the latter part of his term as president of the Senate."

Stivers, who joined the Senate in 1997, was reluctant Wednesday to pat himself on the back.

"If people deem this session a success, it's because of numerous people," he said. "I'm a link in the chain. If there has been a change, it's because the body of the whole, the Senate, has made it. No one person can take credit for that."

Stivers does recommend a change in the legislative process, especially in odd-numbered years' 30-day sessions. Sessions in even-numbered years run for 60 days.

The so-called short-year sessions should have a more defined agenda, he said.

"There is no doubt in my mind that there is a purpose for a 30-day session but it needs much more structure," he said.

"If you really want to define a short session, maybe it should be taking two or three large issues like pensions and have the chambers concentrate on those instead of having 700 to 800 pieces of legislation dividing your time."

Stivers was asked if he likes his job.

After a long pause, he said, "You can understand how people become jaded and hardened in the environment they serve in.

"I wanted to play a part here, and maybe was a part in changing the tenor and tone of the atmosphere while never casting the blame at any one person. That would be unfair.

"But you can understand how people come so guarded in this type of atmosphere. You can understand how their perceptions change. It's a fish bowl within a fish bowl.

"It's unusual to wake up and see they are writing about your personal life, like how your hair is styled. It's different.

"You have to pace yourself. Caution yourself and figure out how to vent and release."

Stivers noted that he received a voice mail message of congratulations after the legislature approved the pension measures Tuesday night.

It was from Williams, the former Senate president, he said. "Pensions are something he has been speaking of since 2005."

He said the two texted sometimes during the session but he never asked for advice.

So what's next for Stivers?

"Immediately?" he asked. "I'm taking my son to Disney World."

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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