Kentucky’s 2016 law-making session begins at noon Tuesday with much uncertainty over how many Democrats and Republicans there will be in the state House when the session ends in mid-April and exactly who might be running the place.
Gov. Matt Bevin on Monday set March 8 as the date for four special elections across the state to fill vacancies in the House.
If Republicans win all four special elections, which Democrats say is unlikely, the House will be evenly spilt — 50 to 50 — among Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats have controlled the chamber since 1921.
Kentucky has never had an evenly split chamber in which parties would have to share power.
Going into the 2016 session, Democrats hold a 50-46 margin after two long-time Democrats — Denver Butler of Louisville and Jim Gooch of Providence — switched to the Republican Party after the Nov. 8 election of Bevin, a Republican, as governor. Republicans have controlled the Senate since 2000.
The four special House elections are the result of the November elections of Republicans Ryan Quarles of Georgetown as state agriculture commissioner and Mike Harmon of Danville as state auditor and Bevin’s appointments of Democrats John Tilley of Hopkinsville as his justice secretary and Tanya Pullin of South Shore as an administrative law judge.
Quarles, who resigned from the House Sunday, had represented the 62nd District, which includes Owen County and parts of Fayette and Scott counties. Harmon, who also resigned from the House Sunday, had represented the 54th District, made up of Boyle and Casey counties.
Tilley resigned from the General Assembly Dec. 27. He had represented the 8th District, made up of parts of Christian and Trigg counties. Pullin resigned as a legislator Dec. 29. She had represented the 98th District, which covers part of Boyd and Greenup counties.
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and Democratic political consultant Dale Emmons said their respective parties will field credible candidates for all four special elections.
Party leaders in each district will pick the candidates, which must file with the secretary of state by Jan. 19 at 4 p.m.. Write-in candidates must file declarations of intent to be write-in candidates no later than Feb. 9 at 4 p.m..
There is uncertainty about how the House would operate with its membership evenly split along party lines.
Emmons said House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, would remain the House’s top leader until at least the next legislative leadership election in January 2017. All 100 House seats will be up for election in this year’s general election.
“I don’t think it will happen but if the four special elections result in a 50-50 split in the House, you can’t take out the current speaker and speaker pro tem (Jody Richards of Bowling Green) on a 50-50 vote,” said Emmons.
Those two positions are elected by the entire chamber.
Thayer said if Republicans win all four special elections, “the momentum will grow even more for Republican control of the House and there would be no guarantee that all 50 Democrats would vote for Stumbo for speaker.”
He noted that some states have experienced split parties in their legislative chambers.
“A type of power share would have to be set up,” said Thayer. “These are uncharted, and I should add, exciting waters.”
Richards said he does not think there could be a House leadership election this year to replace Stumbo or himself, regardless of what happens in the special elections.
“The constitution says we are constitutional officers and we serve for a full two-year term,” said Richards, claiming that the next vote for their positions can’t occur until January 2017.
Richards was referring to Section 34 of the Kentucky Constitution. It says, “The House of Representatives shall choose its Speaker and other officers, and the Senate shall have power to choose its officers biennially.”
Some legislators contend it’s unclear if biennially, which means every two years, refers to only the Senate or both chambers.
That section was written in 1891 and has never been tested in court.
Aides for Stumbo and House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said Monday that the leaders would not be immediately available for comment.
Bevin was asked what he thought about a possible 50-50 split in the House.
That would be “fantastic,” he said, adding that the “tide is turning” in Kentucky to make both legislative chambers Republican.
Bevin also pledged to campaign for the Republican candidates.
Bevin and Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton attended a crowded public swearing-in ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda Monday morning for the state’s other constitutional officers — Quarles, Harmon, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Attorney General Andy Beshear and Treasurer Allison Ball.
Bevin reminded the officers that all of them serve the people of Kentucky. All urged cooperation with each other.
Elections will be held March 8 for these four vacancies in the state House:
62nd District, which includes Owen County and parts of Fayette and Scott counties;
54th District, made up of Boyle and Casey counties;
8th District, made up of parts of Christian and Trigg counties;
98th District, which covers part of Boyd and Greenup counties.