Politics & Government

Kentucky House elects first woman to leadership post

Rep Sannie Overly D-Paris announced shed is filing legislation to strengthen Kentucky's human trafficking laws. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff at the Capitol Extensoin/Rotunda in Frankfort, Ky., on Feb. 1, 2012.  Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Rep Sannie Overly D-Paris announced shed is filing legislation to strengthen Kentucky's human trafficking laws. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff at the Capitol Extensoin/Rotunda in Frankfort, Ky., on Feb. 1, 2012. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — The 2013 General Assembly began on a historic note Tuesday with the election of the first woman to House leadership.

State Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, was elected majority caucus chairman by her Democratic colleagues. Overly defeated Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, who has held the position since 2008.

"It's a humbling experience," Overly said of being the first woman elected to leadership. "I am looking forward to uniting our caucus and maintaining our majority through 2014 and beyond."

Overly was the only challenger who managed to oust an incumbent in leadership races on the first day of the 30-workday legislative session. House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark of Louisville survived a challenge by Rep. Arnold Simpson of Covington, and Majority Whip Tommy Thompson of Owensboro turned back a bid by Rep. Johnny Bell of Glasgow. House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg and House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook were unopposed.

Tuesday was largely ceremonial, with the swearing-in of new House and Senate members and the election of leaders in both chambers.

Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, was re-elected as House minority leader. Hoover becomes the longest-serving Republican minority leader in the House. The only change in GOP House leadership was the election of Rep. John "Bam" Carney, R-Campbellsville, as House minority whip. He replaces Danny Ford, who retired last year. Republican Caucus Chairman Bob DeWeese was re-elected to his position.

In the Senate, members officially elected Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, as president of the Senate. Stivers was selected by his Republican peers for the top job late last year after longtime Senate President David Williams stepped down to become a judge. Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, was elected Senate majority leader, the position Stivers previously held. Re-elected Tuesday were Senate President Pro Tem Katie Stine of Southgate and Majority Caucus Chairman Dan Seum of Louisville. Brandon Smith of Hazard was elected majority whip.

Senate Democrats retained all of their leaders: Minority Leader R.J. Palmer of Winchester, Minority Whip Jerry Rhoads of Madisonville and Democratic Caucus Chairman Johnny Ray Turner of Drift.

Overly, a lawyer and former engineer with the Kentucky Department of Transportation, was also the first woman to chair a budget subcommittee that oversees the multi-billion dollar state road budget. First elected to serve an unexpired term in 2008, Overly has easily won re-election since joining the legislature. Her 72nd House District includes Bourbon, Bath, Nicholas and a small section of Fayette County.

It has taken a long time for women to gain clout in the House, said Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo the longest-serving woman in the legislature.

Palumbo, D-Lexington, said that when she was first elected in 1990 there were only six women serving in the 100-member House.

"We had to work up our numbers," Palumbo said. "I think it also took some time for members to realize the importance of electing a woman not so much because of gender but to bring different ideas to the table."

Women have held leadership positions in the Senate since Republicans took control in 2000. Stine, R-Southgate, has been Senate president pro tem since 2005. Former Sen. Elizabeth Tori was elected Republican whip in 2000.

House and Senate leaders were cautious Tuesday about predicting what might get accomplished in the 30-day legislative session.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he would like to see the House tackle legislative redistricting. A plan redrawing legislative district boundaries that was approved last year was tossed out by the state Supreme Court after it was challenged by House Republicans and Democratic Sen. Kathy Stein of Lexington.

Also, Stumbo said tweaks and changes to the state's pension system are possible. But finding extra money — possibly more than $325 million in coming years — will likely need to be addressed in a special legislative session, Stumbo said.

"The 5,000 pound gorilla in the room is, where do you get the money?" Stumbo said, saying that he would like to have a dedicated funding stream for the pension systems.

Stivers agreed that more money for the pension system will probably have to wait, possibly until 2014, when the legislature tackles the state's two-year budget.

Another topic under discussion is a constitutional amendment to allow for the expansion of gambling, which Gov. Steve Beshear has said he is working on. Stumbo said the House will look at Beshear's proposal, but he would like to have some assurances that the measure would pass in the Republican-controlled Senate before the House votes on the bill.

"We would want to know that there would be a pretty good chance of it being passed down there, given their history on the issue," Stumbo said.

Stivers said expanding gambling is not a Senate priority.

"Do we want to help the horse industry? Without a doubt," Stivers said. "Whether we might agree on the way to help the horse industry may be questioned."

In an effort to mend political relationships in the Senate, Stivers said Senate Republicans will allow Democratic leaders to make their own committee assignments.

"We want to reach out and start writing a new history," Stivers said. "I didn't want that to be an issue."

Minority Leader Palmer, D-Winchester, was pleased with the offer.

"We're getting everything we asked for. That sets a new tone in the Senate," Palmer said. "We wanted to put our people where they wanted to be and believe they will be more productive there."

Both Stumbo and Stivers said they believe lawmakers can agree on more issues than in previous years, when Williams frequently clashed with House Democrats.

"I think there will be a civility to the dialogue," Stumbo said.

Committee assignments in the House and Senate will likely be announced later this week.