There are 138 members of the General Assembly when it’s at full capacity, often working alongside the governor and his senior staff; lower-level constitutional officers like the attorney general; professional Frankfort lobbyists; citizens’ advocacy groups; and others buzzing about the Capitol. Here are a few people in particular to watch this winter:
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin took office Dec. 8 promising to shake up state government after seven decades of nearly uninterrupted Democratic rule. Look for Bevin to promote a flurry of conservative ideas: charter schools, tax cuts, private management of state parks, a 401(k) retirement plan for future state employees, caps on lawsuit damages (which he calls “tort reform”) and letting people join a unionized workplace without paying union dues (“right to work”).
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, commands a big GOP majority in his chamber with 27 Republicans and 11 Democrats, so many of Bevin’s proposals are likely to begin as Senate bills. Stivers is conservative but not reflexively anti-government. He represents a relatively poor district in southeastern Kentucky that relies on public spending, and he often works to make funds available for projects and services.
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, is a traffic cop, helping to decide where bills are assigned for committee hearings and when — or if — they are called for a floor vote. Thayer has blocked past legislation he opposed, such as a proposed constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to felons. Ideologically, Thayer aligns closely with Bevin as a free-market and religious conservative.
Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, is a capable orator who delivers fiery speeches when he believes that Democratic senators are being ignored. With such a diminished minority caucus, though, that’s about all Jones can do. Senate Democrats are outnumbered nearly 3-to-1. Adding to Jones’ troubles, he expects to face a Democratic primary challenger back home in May.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, clings to a narrow Democratic majority with 50 Democrats, 46 Republicans and four open seats to be filled in special elections late in the session. Stumbo is feisty but realistic. He’s likely to give Bevin some of what the governor wants, such as tax cuts, while drawing the line on “tort reform” and “right to work,” which are hot-button issues for many Democrats.
House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, helps decide the fate of bills in the lower chamber, like Thayer, his Senate counterpart. The House is the Democratic Party’s last defensive wall in Kentucky against the rise of Republican political power. The great statehouse drama of 2016 will be how much Bevin can get through the House ... or whether he can flip the House to GOP control.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, will continue to publicly demand that Stumbo allow votes on Republican bills bottled up in committees. Behind the scenes, Hoover will recruit GOP candidates for House seats and urge conservative House Democrats to switch their party affiliation. That looks like a winning strategy. In recent weeks, two representatives — Denver Butler of Louisville and Jim Gooch of Providence — have changed their D for an R, to Hoover’s delight.
Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, and Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, are the respective chairmen of the House and Senate committees on appropriations and revenue. These powerful committees are where the $21 billion, two-year state budget will be written, after they receive Bevin’s budget proposal. They’re also where tax legislation is handled, although few people expect substantive action on tax reform this session.