The Kentucky House of Representatives elected its first Republican leader since 1921 Tuesday, completing the GOP’s dominance of state legislative chambers in the South.
Jeff Hoover was elected speaker of the House by the 100-member chamber shortly after it convened at noon.
“The people are uneasy,” Hoover said in his first address to the chamber as speaker. “The people of Kentucky have expressed their desire for change. The people of Kentucky have a desire for a new direction. The people of Kentucky are depending on this body to provide a climate in this state where they can seek better opportunities for themselves and their families.”
Republicans got to work almost as soon as Hoover, a Jamestown attorney who has been a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives since 1997, took charge of the gavel.
The majority leadership fast-tracked four bills designed to weaken unions, make abortions more difficult and deal with problems at the University of Louisville.
House Bill 1 would allow people to work for unionized employers without paying union dues. House Bill 2 would require doctors to present the results of an ultrasound to women seeking an abortion. House Bill 3 would repeal the state’s prevailing wage law, which generally requires government entities to pay higher wages on construction jobs. House Bill 10 would deal with the aftermath of an executive order by Gov. Matt Bevin that restructured the University of Louisville’s Board of Trustees. That order was challenged in court by Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, and resulted in U of L being placed on probation by its accrediting agency.
Republicans have long pushed for repeal of the prevailing wage, a ban on mandatory union dues and restrictions on abortions, but those efforts were stymied in years past by Democratic leaders of the House.
“Our caucus is very strong about policies that will spur economic growth, make Kentucky attractive to businesses wanting to locate here and create jobs,” Hoover said. “And we are firmly convinced that HB 1 and 3 will do that. We have a very strong pro-life caucus, as you all know I’m very strong pro-life, and that’s why HB 2 is very important to us.”
All four bills were assigned to committee Tuesday, meaning they could get a vote on the House floor, where Republicans now hold a super majority, as early as Thursday.
The bills also contain emergency clauses, which means they would take effect as soon as they are signed by the governor.
When asked about the measure dealing with U of L, Hoover said lawmakers are concerned about issues raised by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The accrediting agency said in December that board members of accredited schools should be removed “only for appropriate reasons and by a fair process” and that the board must be “free from undue influence from political, religious, or other external bodies.”
“The goal is to do what’s best for the University of Louisville to take a further step to get them off the probation that has been assessed by SACS, that’s the number one goal.” Hoover said.
When asked if the proposal would put him at odds with Bevin, Hoover said he didn’t know.
Hoover replaces Democrat Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg, who lost his House seat in a re-election bid in November. He was among 17 Democrats who lost their House seats as Republicans crafted enough wins to gain a 64-36 majority.
House Democrats met earlier in the day to elect their new leaders. State Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, was elected minority leader. Rep. Dennis Keene, D-Wilder, is caucus chairman and Rep. Wilson Stone, D-Scottsville, is minority whip.
“It’s bittersweet,” Adkins said of his election. “We went through a very tough election cycle. We lost a lot of close friends.”
In his first stand as minority leader, Adkins raised concern over a House Resolution that set rules for the chamber, arguing that members didn’t get a chance to review the rules before voting on them.
It was the same argument that Republicans made repeatedly when Democrats controlled the chamber.
State Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, said the argument made him feel like he was “in an old episode of the Twilight Zone.”