Politics & Government

Kentucky lawmakers prepare to elect leaders as 2015 legislative session kicks off Tuesday

The Kentucky General Assembly is set to begin its 2015 legislative session on Tuesday.
The Kentucky General Assembly is set to begin its 2015 legislative session on Tuesday. Matt Goins

FRANKFORT — Kentucky lawmakers will flock to the state Capitol on Tuesday to begin their 2015 legislative session.

During the first four days, they will elect their leaders, begin pondering proposals dealing with everything from stabilizing the state's flagging Road Fund to religious freedom, and witness a rally to implement a statewide smoking ban.

At the end of the week, Kentucky's 2015 General Assembly will adjourn until Feb. 3, when they'll come back to Frankfort and begin the law-making process that will last until March 24.

The Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-led House will officially kick off this year's "short" legislative session at high noon Tuesday.

Short legislative sessions run for 30 working days. They are held in odd- numbered years. The long — or 60-day — sessions are in even-numbered years.

This first part of the 2015 session will see tight leadership races in both parties of the House. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate elected their leaders in December.

Deciding who leads Kentucky's lawmakers could have a major impact on the session, since leaders determine which bills will be considered and the assignment of committee members.

The 54 Democrats in the 100-member House have five leaders to elect.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo is expected to easily win re-election, putting the most focus among Democrats on the race to replace Larry Clark of Louisville as House speaker pro tem. Clark announced in November they he would not to seek re-election to the leadership position he's held since 1993.

Early last month, 12 of the 13 Jefferson County House Democrats held a secret ballot and chose Darryl Owens as their choice for speaker pro tem. Clark did not attend the meeting. Owens is chairman of the House Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.

If elected, he would become the second black person elected to leadership in the Kentucky legislature. Senate Democrats last month elected Sen. Gerald Neal of Louisville as the first, making him their caucus chairman.

But Owens still faces a host of other candidates seeking the House speaker pro tem position. They include Rep. Dennis Keene of Wilder, Rep. Jeff Greer of Brandenburg and Rep. Jody Richards of Bowling Green. Richards is a former speaker of the House.

On the Republican side of the House, two of three GOP leaders have said they will not seek re-election to their leadership posts — House Republican Whip John "Bam" Carney of Campbellsville and Republican Caucus Chair Bob DeWeese of Louisville.

House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover of Jamestown is being challenged by Rep. Adam Koenig of Erlanger.

Hoover has never faced a serious opponent since he was elected House minority leader in 2001. Koenig has cited Hoover's inability to lead Republicans to a takeover of the House in the November elections.

In addition to electing leaders and appointing committee heads during the first week of the session, some lawmakers have said they plan to introduce and push legislation on a variety of topics.

Senate Transportation Chairman Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, is working on a plan that he said would stabilize the state Road Fund.

The state Transportation Cabinet announced in November that the state tax on sales of gasoline, diesel and ethanol motor fuels would drop by 4.3 cents a gallon on Jan. 1, resulting in a loss to the Road Fund of about $129 million on an annualized basis.

Kentucky's gas tax, which accounts for more than half the revenue in the Road Fund, fluctuates with the average wholesale price of gas, which has dropped in recent months.

A loss of $129 million would amount to about 6 percent of Kentucky's highway funding, which was forecast to collect $2.25 billion in the current fiscal year from all revenue sources, including state and federal motor-fuels taxes and a state usage tax on motor vehicles.

Also, Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, is working on a bill that he said would deal with religious freedom. Last year, Robinson won legislative approval for a measure that required posting "In God We Trust" signs in every legislative committee room.

Other weighty topics to be considered in the session include a statewide ban on smoking in public places, curbing the use of heroin, raising the minimum wage, granting voting rights for ex-felons, redrawing state circuit court boundaries, and a state constitutional amendment to give communities the option to impose temporarily higher sales taxes on themselves to pay for big construction projects.

The entire session will be played out with the backdrop of gubernatorial politics.

Kentuckians will elect a new governor and lieutenant governor this year, and other state constitutional offices.

Two state legislators are running for lieutenant governor — Rep. Sannie Overly of Paris on the Democratic ticket with Attorney General Jack Conway, and Republican Sen. Christian McDaniel of Latonia on the slate with Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

Other lawmakers are mulling the possibility of entering this year's races. They have until Jan. 27 to decide whether to file.