Monday, January 01, 2001

Legislature's first order of business - politics

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — The General Assembly has been meeting in odd-numbered years since 1983. The difference starting Tuesday will be legislators also will be able to consider and pass substantive legislation for the first time, thanks to a constitutional amendment approved by the voters in November.

        Like the previous odd-year sessions, though, organizational matters will be the first order of business after legislators convene at noon. There are leadership races to be decided, chairmen to be selected and committee assignments to be made.

        How much substantive work gets done during the first week or when the bifurcated session resumes Feb. 6 is a matter of conjecture.

        The major players in the House and Senate have no known challengers.

        Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, did not pick up any new seats for his party during the 2000 elections, but also did not lose any. Thus, the GOP retains the slim 20-18 majority in the Senate it won in 1999 when two former Democrats switched parties.

        Any fallout Mr. Williams might have gotten by leading his fellow Republicans into voting for long-distance telephone tax increases this year was ameliorated by the election results.

        But leadership elections are different creatures. Political philosophy takes a back seat to personal, practical considerations. Legislators vote for leaders who can make sure the basketball team from back home gets to be recognized on the floor of the House or a bill gets a chance for a vote.

        Mr. Williams has aggravated Democrats by ousting some of them from their offices to give his fellow Republicans new digs. Such picayune moves ultimately cost former Senate President Larry Saunders his job. If Mr. Williams refuses to consult with Democrats about their committee assignments, he risks offending them even further and awakening a group that was fairly docile during the 2000 session.

        Senate Democratic Whip Marshall Long of Shelbyville said he, longtime floor leader David Karem of Louisville and caucus chairman David Boswell of Owensboro have no known opposition.

        In the House, Democratic floor leader Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg is secure in his position as the most influential member. Jody Richards, who has gubernatorial aspirations, apparently will remain as speaker.

        Bob Damron of Nicholasville thought about challenging House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark of Louisville, but dropped the idea when he found little support.

        The only leadership contests appear to be in the House Republican caucus, which makes up barely a third of the 100-member House and wields little influence.

        Rep. Danny Ford of Mount Vernon is not seeking re-election as floor leader. He will be succeeded by Jeff Hoover of Jamestown, the current caucus chairman.

        Brian Crall of Owensboro and Bob DeWeese of Louisville are seeking the vacant job of caucus chairman.

        Woody Allen of Morgantown potentially has two challengers for the minority whip position. Mr. Allen, a House member 26 years, has been in and out of favor with his colleagues, serving one term as floor leader in the 1980s and whip from 1980-86. This time, Ron Crimm of Louisville and sophomore Ken Upchurch of Monticello are challenging Mr. Allen.

        The contested matters, even though they will be decided behind closed doors, are the prime committee assignments. There are vacancies on the all-important House Appropriations and Reve nue Committee, but almost never enough. That is why the committee has 28 members, more than a fourth of the entire House. Female members of the House already have said they want more clout. And Republicans, who lost a seat and now have only 34, could end up odd man out, as they have in the past.

        The session is scheduled to last until Friday, then adjourn until Feb. 6. No committee meetings are scheduled for the first week, though bills can be filed and work could be done.

        “I think about all that will happen is the legislators will get paid, whether they're there or not,” said Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville. “I really don't see any pressing issue out there.”


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