The Kentucky General Assembly began its 60-day lawmaking session Tuesday with a squabble over rules that could affect which party controls the state House in coming months.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo maintained Tuesday that there can be no election in the chamber this year to replace him as the House’s top leader, regardless of what happens in four special elections Gov. Matt Bevin has called for March 8 to fill vacancies.
Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, said the Kentucky Constitution states that the House speaker and speaker pro tem, who is Democrat Jody Richards of Bowling Green, serve two-year terms.
The next House leadership elections for speaker and speaker pro tem are not until January 2017, so Richards and he will serve at least until then, Stumbo said. Those positions are elected by the entire chamber.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, sharply disagreed with Stumbo, saying a simple majority of House members could elect a new speaker at any time.
If the GOP is successful in the March special elections, that would change political membership in the House from 50 Democrats and 46 Republicans to a 50-50 split. Republicans have narrowed the margin in recent weeks with the party switching of Jim Gooch of Providence and Denver Butler of Louisville.
Hoover is counting on Republican victories in the special elections in four House districts. Those seats had been held by two Republicans and two Democrats. All 100 House seats will be up for grabs in the fall, and Republicans are hoping to gain control of the House for the first time since 1921.
If the House gets to a 50-50 split, some Democrats might join Republicans in ousting Stumbo as speaker and electing Hoover to the post, Hoover said.
Should there be a move this year to hold an election in the House for the positions of speaker and pro tem, Stumbo said he would rule the request out of order.
Disagreement on how the House should be run spilled over into a testy exchange on the House floor Tuesday.
Hoover objected to a motion by Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, to adopt the same governing rules the chamber had for last year’s legislative session.
Hoover said last year’s rules did not provide for proportional political representation on some committees. He also contended that there no longer was a clear majority in the 100-member chamber and that it would require 51 votes to change the rules.
Adkins agreed that 51 votes would be needed to change the rules and noted that House Democratic leaders had planned to “look at” committee assignments.
Stumbo said the rules that existed when the legislature ended last year would stay in effect unless they are amended.
Hoover argued that House rules expire at the end of a legislative session.
“If that’s not the case, what’s the purpose of introducing new rules?” he asked. “This is not a good way to start this session.”
Adkins said House leaders would work to alleviate Hoover’s concerns.
Hoover later was asked by reporters if he was trying to set a precedent to challenge the ruling of the speaker in possible future disagreements.
He smiled and said that was not the case. “We just want to be open and transparent with all that goes on on this floor,” he said.
Hoover noted that the Senate in 1999 replaced its Democratic president with a Republican, but Stumbo said that happened after the Democrat stepped aside.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he was hopeful that Republicans could take control of the House but noted that the deadline for lawmakers to switch political parties was Dec. 31.
But if a Democrat should want to resign from the House “to go on to a new career, that is possible,” Stivers said.
Neither the House nor Senate considered any legislation on the first day of the session.
Stumbo said House Bill 1, usually designated as such to publicize its importance to the party in control, would call for the issuance of $3.3 billion in bonds to address the financially strapped teachers’ retirement system. A similar proposal failed during last year’s session.
Stivers said the Republican-controlled Senate would unveil its priority bills Wednesday. He said Senate Bill 1 probably would deal with education, but he declined to provide details.
A tough task for the new governor and legislature will be crafting a two-year budget for the state, said Stivers.
“Revenues are growing at a good rate,” he said, but the financial demands of an expanded Medicaid program and the state’s ailing pensions systems mean “it's going to be a daunting task for the governor ... to balance this budget.”
Stivers warned that the legislature “may not be able to do all we want to do” about pension problems.
“It may be necessary to get a full-blown audit or performance audit on how this is working,” he said. “But I know we need to put additional moneys into both systems to stabilize them.”
Whatever the results, this year’s lawmaking session is expected to cost taxpayers about $6.9 million, according to the Legislative Research Commission. It runs through April 15.
Much of that money will go to pay lawmakers.
The daily pay for each legislator is the same as last year: $188.22. While in session, lawmakers are paid for every day of the week, including weekends and holidays. State lawmakers have not received a daily pay raise since 2010.
Legislative leaders are paid more, but there is no change from last year.
Floor leaders get $225.62 a day. The pro tems, caucus chairs and whips receive $216.88 a day. The Senate president and House speaker each make $235.57 a day.
Committee chairs get an extra $18.71 for each meeting.
The mileage reimbursement rate for lawmakers dropped from last year’s 57.5 cents a mile to 54 cents. The rate applies for each mile they drive from home to the Capitol, limited to one round-trip a week.
The stationery allowance will not change this year. Each session, House members receive $250 and Senate members get $400.
The daily expense allowance for each legislator is increasing from $141.90 last year to $154 per calendar day during the session.
When the legislature is not in session, lawmakers receive $188.22 on days they have official business in Frankfort, such as a committee meeting. They also receive a monthly expense allowance of $1,788.51, the same as last year.
Lawmakers this year also are enjoying newly renovated chambers that include refurbished desks, new carpeting and computers, and an improved sound system.
Rob Weber, spokesman for the LRC, said the cost to the LRC for new sound systems, computers and a voting system was about $1.1 million.
Other renovations in the two chambers cost the state Finance and Administration Cabinet about $1.46 million, said spokeswoman Pamela Trautner.