The State Capitol saw the first steps Wednesday in a dramatic five-week transition of power that is spreading both hope and concern across the commonwealth.
The preliminary steps from the eight-year leadership of moderate Democrat Steve Beshear to Tea Party conservative Matt Bevin began behind the scenes and in a cooperative spirit.But emotions are stirring about a candidate elected with a mandate Tuesday who has promised to cut the size of government, rework public pensions, initiate charter schools, adopt a so-called right-to-work law, blasted Obamacare and embraced the cause of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis.“The change in Frankfort could be extremely radical. State employees are very concerned,” said state Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, a former governor. “But the question of what change we’ve got coming will depend on which Matt Bevin shows up as governor. He went all the way from radical in the primary, to moderate in the general election, to being a peacemaker last night.”Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said although Democrats retain majority control in the House, Bevin’s victory margin of more than 80,000 votes is a mandate that could see passage of much of a Republican agenda stalled under Beshear.“It becomes a different dynamic now that we have the bully pulpit of the governor’s office and the power of that office to make things happen,” Stivers said.Bevin remained out of public view on his first day as governor-elect.His campaign spokeswoman Jessica Ditto said Wednesday that Bevin is “spending private time with his family and having planning meetings.”Stivers said he met on Wednesday in Frankfort with what he called the “pre-transition” team of 10 to 12 Bevin advisers, including state Rep. Jerry Miller, R-Eastwood. He estimated that the new administration will need to fill up to 800 positions in state government.Beshear released a statement Wednesday saying that he called Bevin earlier in the day to congratulate him and promise an orderly transition through the Dec. 8 inauguration of Bevin.“My office will work with his administration to answer any questions and provide all information necessary to assure consistent delivery of all services,” Beshear said.During the campaign Bevin repeatedly advertised his endorsement by Kentucky Right to Life, he said he would defund Planned Parenthood, and he strongly backed Kim Davis after she was jailed briefly by a federal judge after Davis refused to issue a marriage license to same-sex couples despite a U.S. Supreme court ruling legalizing same-sex marriages.Among those hopeful about the transition is Martin Cothran, senior policy adviser for the Family Foundation of Kentucky. “It’s going to be a big change in policy in this state, I think … to have the governor’s office in the hands of somebody who really wants to make some conservative change is heartening.”Cothran said, “We’ve elected a governor who has expressed strong support for religious freedom, who is also in favor of charter schools. So we are hopeful some of the policy statements he made during the campaign are realized.”But David Smith, executive director of the Kentucky Association of State Employees, is worried about Bevin's promises as a candidate to “shrink the size of government.”Bevin said in an interview with The Courier-Journal last month, “Every department, every cabinet, every single area of government will have to tighten their budgets to the absolute degree possible.”
Smith said he fears Bevin will cut too deeply in areas the new governor does not consider priorities.
“We’re expecting cuts to personnel right off the bat, we anticipate the possibility of privatization of parks service,” Smith said. “I hope what he said in his acceptance speech about trying to bring everybody in Kentucky together for the best solutions is true. … But for now, I would say 99 percent of state workers feel concerned about what’s coming next: Where are we going to be cut? Is there a possibility I won’t even have a job come July?”Many also are concerned over Bevin’s campaign proposal to place newly hired teachers into a 401(k)-style retirement plan instead of a traditional pension.Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association, raised doubts that the Democrat-led House would support the change but said teachers are nevertheless worried over their pensions and the future of public education. She said the organization would fight hard against any attempt to move to a 401(k).Stivers said Wednesday that while Senate Republicans remain concerned over the stability of pensions, members have not discussed the 401(k) change and that support is still unclear.In general, he stressed that while Senate Republicans and Bevin believe in many of the same platforms, “from a process standpoint, we are not going to give up our legislative independence.”Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said that he has yet to meet Bevin in person but hopes the two sides can find common ground on several key issues, including Kentucky's pension woes, the future of the state health insurance exchange and managing money for education.Bevin will be the first Republican governor since Stumbo took the helm as House speaker, and Stumbo said he is encouraging House legislators to keep an open mind and avoid getting entrenched in policy positions."I intend to make every effort to work with him and I would encourage my colleagues to do the same," he said. "Are we going to battle over certain political issues -- sure that's part of the beast. But what I think we should do is find things we can agree upon and move forward with those things."
It’s unclear if a Bevin administration will allow House Democrats to highlight differences with Republicans or force them to pivot to the right as they defend their last outpost.Democratic strategist Danny Briscoe said that with Stumbo in control, the House will likely serve as a check on Bevin’s more conservative objectives, including right-to-work legislation and a proposal to move newly hired teachers into a 401(k)-style retirement plan instead of a traditional pension.
He predicted that lawmakers will regard every piece of legislation next year through the prism of the 2016 House elections.“Every bill that comes up, every critical issue that comes up, Republicans will say ‘how is it going to affect our chances in November,’ and the Democrats will say the same thing, which I think means we probably won’t get a lot done,” Briscoe said.