FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The second year of Republican rule in Kentucky begins this week as lawmakers return to Frankfort for a 60-day legislative session.
Republicans used their first year in power to pass dozens of laws that had been blocked for decades by Democrats. Those laws place restrictions on abortions and labor unions, allow charter schools and call for creation of a panel of doctors to review medical malpractice cases before they go to trial.
But that was the easy stuff.
In year two, Republicans will have to write a budget for the first time in an election year while mulling changes to a public pension system that covers hundreds of thousands of workers — most of whom vote. And they’ll have to do so under a cloud of controversy over inappropriate sexual behavior that has not yet run its course.
Here are five questions about the legislative session, which begins Tuesday and runs through April 13 (with a few breaks in between).
Who will be speaker of the House?
Jeff Hoover and three other Republican lawmakers secretly settled a sexual harassment claim in October with a woman who worked for the House Republican caucus. The Courier Journal revealed that settlement, and Hoover resigned as speaker in November. He did not resign from the Legislature.
It has taken many lawyers to figure out who is in charge. They have settled on David Osborne, the speaker pro tempore, who is not officially the speaker but has “assumed operational control” of the chamber. Asked recently what people should call him, Osborne laughed and said, “David.”
But those same lawyers also note Hoover cannot officially resign until the House is in session, because until then the House legally does not exist. This means Hoover must resign a second time Jan. 2.
Several Republican lawmakers have asked him to stay on as speaker. If he follows their advice, it could split the Republican caucus.
What will happen to the pension system?
Kentucky’s retirement system is one of the worst-funded systems in the country. State workers are owed billions of dollars in benefits over the next 30 years, but the government is a little short. At least $41 billion short, according to official estimates.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and other GOP leaders proposed a plan in October that would have eventually closed the pension system and replaced it with a 401(k)-style plan while capping benefits for current employees at 27 years of service and imposing a 3 percent pay cut. State workers revolted, and the plan was scrapped.
Bevin and Republican leaders say they are writing a new plan, which they hope to pass in the first few weeks of the session. Any change likely will be difficult, both in cost to taxpayers and benefit reductions for employees.
Will Kentuckians pay more, or less, in taxes?
Everyone seems to agree Kentucky’s tax system does not produce enough revenue to run the government. But that’s where the agreement ends. Multiple legislatures and governors have tried to overhaul the system, appointing blue-ribbon commissions that write blue-ribbon reports that sit on blue-ribbon shelves.
With Republicans controlling most of state government, they now say they have a “once in a generation chance” at changing the tax code. Bevin says he wants to lower the tax rate, pledging to eliminate many sales tax exemptions to make up the difference in revenue. But the people and industries that benefit from those exemptions don’t like that. And they have lots of lobbyists.
How big will the budget cuts be?
Bevin’s budget director says lawmakers have to find roughly $1 billion to spend on the state’s struggling pension system. That leaves little, if any, to spend on anything else. Bevin has said the budget “won’t be pretty.”
Will Republicans keep control of the House?
Republicans won a majority in the House for the first time in nearly 100 years. Now they have to defend it. The filing deadline for the November 2018 elections is Jan. 30, which comes in the middle of the legislative session.
Republicans have 63 out of 100 seats. Such a large majority makes it unlikely Democrats can regain control in November. But Democrats are hopeful they can use the backlash to the proposed pension changes to boost their chances.
One race to watch could be a special election in the 49th district. Republican Dan Johnson narrowly won that seat in 2016. Johnson killed himself in December following allegations that he sexually assaulted a teenage girl in his basement in 2013. Johnson’s wife, Rebecca, has maintained his innocence and was nominated last week as the GOP candidate in the Feb. 20 special election. She is set to face Linda Belcher, who narrowly lost to Johnson in 2016 and was nominated by Democrats to run for the seat.