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2016 Legislative Session Underway, House Future Uncertain

Josh James
Gavel resting on the Senate President's podium in the Kentucky Senate

The gavels came down shortly after noon Tuesday, marking the start of the 2016 General Assembly in Frankfort. Leadership in both chambers are busy outlining their agendas for the 60-day budget session.

The largely ceremonial opening day  of Kentucky's legislative session resembles, in many ways, the first day of school - from the Pledge of Allegiance to roll call - as new members get situated and familiarize themselves with the rules. Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo told reporters House Bill 1, the legislation at the top of the chamber's to-do list, will focus on pensions, taking another stab at a $3.3 billion dollar bonding package that encountered a chilly reception in the Senate in 2015.

"Everybody says they want to solve it. I'm waiting for someone else to come up with a plan. I've got a plan," he said before taking his place at the head of the chamber. Republicans have characterized the fix as adding debt on top of existing debt, but Stumbo maintains a favorable bond market could buoy funds for the struggling Kentucky Teachers Retirement System.

On the other end of the Capitol, Senate President Robert Stivers said the Republican leadership will name a lead bill Tuesday.

"Senate Bill 1 will be related to education. We want to confirm that and make sure that we have the full support of out caucus on that," he said, stopping short of an announcement.

Charter schools, a priority for Gov. Matt Bevin, will not be addressed in the bill. Stivers said, while many of the Senate's goals align with the agenda of the new Republican governor, the chamber will chart its own path.

"We're not going to give up our legislative independence," he added. "We have our priorities. We're going to move with our priorities. We're going to inform the governor."

Bevin will give his first major policy speech this Thursday at Kentucky Chamber event. He's also elected to condense two traditional joint chamber addresses this month into one in late January.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Senate President Robert Stivers presides over the chamber on day one of the 2016 legislative session

Leadership On The Line

2016 begins with an air of uncertainty for Democrats, as they look to protect a precarious four-seat majority in the House. Should districts scheduled for special elections on March 8 go red, membership in the longtime Democratic stronghold would be tied with 50 seats each. Asked whether he should remain on as the House Speaker in that scenario, Greg Stumbo told reporters Tuesday he believes that would be consistent with state law.

"I think the Speaker and the Speaker Pro Tem, the President and the President Pro Tem of the Senate are Constitutional Officers. We're mentioned in the Constitution that says they're elected biannually. We take the oath just like Constitutional Officers," he said.

Democrats have lost seats over the last couple months thanks to party defections and members accepting new positions in state government. Republican Senate leader Robert Stivers said lawmakers are now past the deadline to switch parties this session, but "if they may resign to go on to a new career, that is possible, but I can't say that I'm aware of anybody right now that is considering that."

Just how that would affect business in the House is unclear. Stumbo says he hopes he "doesn't have to find out." 

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.
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