October 31, 2012

Election 2012: A Halloween Story

What if Republicans take the State House?

For 91 years, the Democratic Party has held majority control of Kentucky’s state House, but many Republicans are optimistic that this era could come to an end after the Nov. 6 election.

Though Republicans need to gain 10 seats to take the House majority — and are being outspent by Democrats in most key races — Minority Leader Jeff Hoover believes that this will happen, recently previewing the legislative agenda they intend for Frankfort.

Such a scenario was quite common across America after the 2010 elections, as Republicans not only gained seats at the federal level, but also swept into control of state legislatures and governorships.

In several states — most notably Wisconsin — Republicans gutted the power of labor unions, and 32 states have added new restrictions on access to abortion.

Though Gov. Steve Beshear will occupy the governor’s mansion through 2015, Kentucky’s constitution limits his power to block the General Assembly, as only a simple majority of the House and Senate (certain to remain dominated by Republicans) overturns a gubernatorial veto.

Democrat Rep. Tom Burch of Louisville — the longest-serving member of the House — says Frankfort wouldn’t even be recognizable with total Republican control of the General Assembly.

“You would see a radical 180-degree change in how this state operated,” Burch says. “People wouldn’t even know what was happening to them until it was too late.”

Democrats remain confident this won’t happen, but fear the possibility of Republicans striking electoral gold and remaking Kentucky into a conservative’s paradise.

For the past decade, anti-abortion activists and legislators have seen their favored bills go down to defeat in the House Health and Welfare Committee chaired by Rep. Burch. With Republican control, Burch says, “They’d shoot an abortion bill through there so fast it’d make your head spin.”

Derek Selznick, director of the ACLU of Kentucky’s Reproductive Freedom Project, expects that with such a change in power, Republicans would end years of frustration by passing those previously failed bills, such as requiring a 24-hour waiting period after an in-person consultation by a doctor for women seeking an abortion, a mandatory ultrasound — including a transvaginal probe — and effectively banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Selznick would also expect a Republican majority to add a referendum on the ballot for a fetal personhood amendment to the state constitution, and to block access for contraceptive coverage.

“I think only their creativity would limit what they would pass,” Selznick says.

Not only does the legislative agenda posted on the website of the House Republican Caucus Campaign Committee fail to mention abortion, but also labor issues. Republicans in past years have sought to do away with Kentucky’s prevailing wage law — requiring standard wages for construction workers on public projects — and pushed for so-called “right to work” legislation, which would make union membership and dues-paying voluntary.

Rep. Burch, as well as fellow Louisville Democratic House members Mary Lou Marzian and Jim Wayne, say they are certain Republicans would push such anti-union legislation in the House.

Joe Burgan, spokesman for the GOP House Caucus, tells LEO: “While there are members who support right to work, members who do not, and members that are unsure, this is an issue that will be debated and addressed by the caucus.”

AFL-CIO of Kentucky president Bill Londrigan — who says such legislation would be devastating for workers’ wages and benefits — actually agrees that right to work legislation wouldn’t necessarily be a done deal if the GOP took the House. While he expects some Republicans to make a Wisconsin-style offensive, Londrigan says a “significant number” of them “aren’t really favorable to anti-labor legislation.”

“It’s a divisive issue, and I wouldn’t see them coming right out of the box with it,” Londrigan says. “It’s gotten no traction in previous sessions and doesn’t have a whole lot of support on either side, it seems.”

Jim Waters, president of the free market think-tank Bluegrass Institute, expects a GOP majority — which he puts at 50/50 odds — would put off the right to work fight until they are able to reform the public pension system, which has an unfunded liability near $30 billion. The House GOP caucus pledged to advocate privatizing pensions for newly hired state workers, using a 401k-style defined contribution plan.

House Democrats such as Rep. Wayne say that such a scheme would not provide a secure retirement for government workers and teachers, describing it as “another way to undercut the working class and the middle class.”

Wayne gave LEO a laundry list of items he would expect a GOP House majority to deliver, including deeper cuts to education and social services, blocking the expansion of Medicaid under “Obamacare,” and passing a tax reform plan that puts more of a burden on low to middle income Kentuckians and fails to generate sufficient revenue.

“I think what we would see is a deterioration of, basically, civilization in Kentucky,” Wayne says. “Because we’re already on the bottom of the list in so many areas, in terms of the physical and mental health of our people, the education level of our people. So all of that would just continue to deteriorate.”

Waters of the Bluegrass Institute expects a GOP majority in the House would bring Tea Party Republicans into leadership positions, who would advance conservative causes more aggressively than Rep. Hoover has in the past. Rep. Wayne agrees, with a much different view of how this would affect Kentuckians.

“It’s a very scary picture, and I hope people understand that (the Kentucky GOP) is basically controlled by the more libertarian end of the party, the Tea Party folks, who have a pretty strong stranglehold on a lot of these legislators right now,” Wayne says.

Rep. Marzian tells LEO that if the Republicans take the House, their first order of business will be finalizing redistricting for the General Assembly, ensuring that their gains in the legislature would become permanent.

But is the Republican goal of gaining 10 seats in the House realistic or just bluster? While Democrats sound confident they will remain in the majority, they aren’t taking anything for granted.

“I feel pretty good, but you never know,” Marzian says. “I never thought Rand Paul would win, but there he is.”

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