FRANKFORT — Under a broiling sun Thursday in front of the Kentucky Capitol, House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover explained and expounded on his vision for a Republican-led state House.
With about 20 candidates from the Grand Old Party behind him, Hoover talked about overhauling the tax code, repealing an expansion of Medicaid under "Obamacare," passing "right-to-work" legislation that would allow people to work in businesses that have unions without joining the union, creating medical review panels to curb frivolous lawsuits, and implementing a host of other conservative proposals.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he was glad Hoover held the news conference — the last one of a three-day media tour in the state to tout House Republican candidates.
"It's a waste of time for them. The House is going to stay Democratic," Stumbo predicted.
An intense political struggle is underway in the Bluegrass State for control of the state House in the Nov. 4 elections.
Democrats have dominated it since 1921, but Republicans have been steadily gaining on them in the last 20 years.
In 1994, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 71-29 in the House. That dipped to 64-35 in 2004. This year, it stands at 54-46.
Democrats and Republicans agree on at least one thing: Much is at stake.
Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, is concerned his last two years in office could by stymied if Republicans control both the House and Senate. Republicans took over the Senate in 2000 and maintain a solid grip on the upper chamber.
Beshear, who has been on the campaign trail for House Democratic candidates, dismissed the House GOP's media tour and "Handshake with Kentucky" legislative platform as "the same old stuff they have touted for years."
"They want to reduce taxes on the wealthy and put more of the tax burden on the middle class," Beshear said. "They want to take away health care for 500,000 Kentuckians who just got it, many for the first time. They do not support the minimum wage. To me, it's the same-old same-old."
Hoover, a Jamestown attorney who concedes that he would like to replace Stumbo as House speaker, said the future of Kentucky is at stake.
"The people will have to decide if we are going to continue the status quo of high unemployment," Hoover said. "Are we going to do things differently? Are we going to change the landscape to create more jobs?"
Stumbo, who has been House speaker since 2009, said Kentuckians need only look at what has happened in other states where "radical Republicans" took over in recent years to understand what's at stake.
"You have teacher strikes, labor unrest, economic development halts," Stumbo said. "Kentucky is coming out of a major national recession that started with Republicans. We don't want to go back."
Stumbo especially scoffed at two major pledges in the House Republican "Handshake" platform: ending corruption in the Kentucky House and passing a constitutional amendment that would presumably block implementation of parts of the federal health care law.
"They want to pass a constitutional amendment to prohibit any person or employer being forced to participate in a care system. That's unconstitutional," he said.
Stumbo noted that the Affordable Care Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court has declared constitutional, includes a penalty provision for people who do not get health insurance.
"The Republicans want to opt out of federal law," Stumbo said. "That's one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard. Sounds like they want to boost states' rights when we had things like slavery."
Hoover laughed when told Stumbo said the GOP amendment was unconstitutional.
"My understanding is that other states have passed or proposed such legislation," Hoover said. "I hear a lot of Kentuckians say they have real problems with mandated coverage. I threw it out there and it's something we're going to look at."
Hoover and GOP leaders also want to repeal an expansion of Medicaid that Beshear implemented under the federal health law, saying Kentucky could face a financial crisis if the move isn't reversed.
As of July 31, more than 521,000 Kentuckians had enrolled in coverage through Kynect, the health insurance exchange created by Beshear under the federal law. The majority of those enrolled received Medicaid, the government-funded insurance program for the poor and disabled.
The percentage of adults without health insurance in Kentucky has dropped from 20.4 percent last year to less than 12 percent, the second largest decline among the states since the federal law took effect in January, according to a Gallup poll released last month.
The federal government is paying the entire cost of the expansion for the first few years, but that drops to 90 percent in coming years.
"Where are we going to pick up the cost for this? $300 million? $500 million? $600 million?" Hoover asked. "Somebody has to talk about picking up the cost."
Stumbo also derided the GOP's pledge to end corruption in the Kentucky House.
Hoover this week regularly mentioned the ongoing sexual harassment scandal in the House when talking about the GOP pledge.
Sexual harassment lawsuits have been filed against former Democratic Rep. John Arnold of Sturgis. Democrat Will Coursey of Symsonia in Graves County, who is in a tight re-election fight, also has been sued on allegations that he retaliated against a Legislative Research Commission employee after she made claims about his behavior.
Both Arnold and Coursey deny any wrongdoing.
Stumbo said it's odd that Republicans are talking about ending corruption. He highlighted three controversies involving Republicans:
■ State Rep. Ben Waide of Madisonville is under state indictment for alleged campaign finance violations but claims he did nothing wrong.
■ U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Hopkinsville is under investigation by a House ethics panel over allegations that his wife — a lobbyist for the U.S. Humane Society Legislative Fund — improperly lobbied him on behalf of legislation he is sponsoring related to show horses. He has said there was no wrongdoing.
■ Ernie Fletcher, who was governor from 2003 to 2007, was indicted in a state hiring scandal. Fletcher issued several pardons and the investigation was ended by an agreement in 2006 between Fletcher and Stumbo, who was then attorney general.
Besides a war of words on issues, the House Democrats and Republicans are conducting vigorous campaigns and trying to raise as much money as possible to pay for them.
Western Kentucky, where Republicans have gained ground in recent House elections, continues to be a prime potential spot for Republican victories, said Hoover.
He also noted that the 39th House District race in Jessamine and parts of Fayette County seems to be extremely tight.
In that race, Democrat Russ Meyer and Republican Jonah Mitchell, both of Nicholasville, are seeking to replace Democrat Bob Damron, who is running for Jessamine County judge-executive.
Last month, WHAS-TV in Louisville and CN2's Pure Politics reported that at least six Republican state House candidates had complained that they were the targets of telephone polls that gave positive statements about the Democratic candidate before listing "possible criticisms" of the Republican candidate.
Stumbo acknowledged that Democrats have "tested" messages. "They are truthful," he said.
It's possible the Nov. 4 elections could produce a 50-50 split in the House, but Stumbo and Hoover downplay the possibility.
"I believe if we can even get close to 50, there would be some Democrats in the House who would switch to Republicans," Hoover said.
Stumbo said "terrible gridlock" has occurred in states where an even split has occurred.