Politics & Government

After an autumn of chaos, can House Republicans bridge divisions and pass laws?

If it was a wave that swept the Republicans into office last November, this autumn exposed the debris.

Since September, House Speaker Jeff Hoover announced he would step down from his leadership post after secretly settling a sexual harassment claim made by a member of his staff. Gov. Matt Bevin called on Hoover and three other members of the House Republican Caucus involved in the settlement to resign from office, but they refused. Another House GOP staffer is suing the Legislative Research Commission, claiming she was retaliated against for reporting a toxic work environment. And the Legislative Ethics Commission is investigating the sexual harassment scandal.

Meanwhile, Bevin’s effort to overhaul Kentucky’s ailing pension systems has stalled. A GOP lawmaker committed suicide after denying allegations that he molested a 17-year-old girl. A Republican lawmaker has filed a resolution to expel Hoover from the legislature. And on Thursday, a Republican House member wrote an open letter criticizing leadership for stifling the flow of legislation.

If that isn’t enough, House Republicans risk spiraling into an open civil war if Hoover reneges on his promise to step aside and takes control of the House when legislators convene the 2018 General Assembly at noon Tuesday.

All this raises the question: will political chaos completely derail Republicans’ legislative agenda in 2018?

“Honestly, I don’t know,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican political analyst in Kentucky. “I don’t think anyone knows.”

With a financial crisis looming large in Frankfort, the ability to govern is crucial. Kentucky has one of the worst-funded pension systems in the country, creating a billion-dollar hole in the next two-year state budget that will likely require deep cuts to education and other core government services if lawmakers don’t raise taxes.

If Republicans can’t fix the problem, it could cost them control of the House when voters cast ballots next November.

“There has to be enough cohesion in the party to solve those two problems and keep the state moving forward,” Jennings said. “The Republicans need to understand that there will always be division, but they need to remember that the divisions can’t get in the way of the larger goal.”

Some Republicans insist that House leaders have swept aside the distractions and remain focused on legislative priorities, such as pension reform. Even if Hoover hadn’t gotten mired in scandal, the governor’s pension proposal wouldn’t have gotten a vote in a special legislative session this fall, said state Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville.

“Would it have been easier? Yeah, it probably would have been easier,” Nemes said. “But it wouldn’t have been done in a special session.”

Others insist the House Republican Caucus won’t be able to regain order until the four lawmakers involved in the sexual harassment settlement resign their seats.

“Distractions are horrible when you have big decisions to make,” said Rep. Phil Moffett, R-Louisville. “The right thing to do is for these people to resign from their offices.”

The issue might come to a head Tuesday, when Hoover will either step aside or seize control of the House. He has not responded to repeated requests for comment from the Herald-Leader.

Though Hoover said he would resign in November, he’s technically still Speaker of the House. Hoover has not filed a letter announcing his resignation and even if he had, the House cannot officially accept his resignation until it is in session.

If Hoover doesn’t step aside as promised, some Republican lawmakers are threatening to walk out, a situation that could completely derail legislative proceedings and turn a rift in the Republican Party into a chasm.

“If they don’t resign, it causes huge problems for everybody, including the citizens,” Moffett said.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics

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