FRANKFORT – Soon after Republicans won control of the state House in the Nov. 8 election, I told the man who would thus be speaker that I’d never heard anyone say anything bad in public about him, “but just wait two or three months.”
Rep. Jeff Hoover of Jamestown laughed and agreed, knowing he was about to be transformed from a well-liked minority leader with relatively little power into the boss of a super-majority that would bring Kentucky its first true one-party rule in 121 years (unless you count Republicans’ informal control of the Senate in 1920).
The transformation was jarring for Democrats on Thursday, as Republicans fast-tracked major bills on some of the most divisive issues in Kentucky – abortion and the influence of labor unions – while using party-line votes to limit debate to 30 minutes on each side and block consideration of Democratic amendments.
The House’s big bills were a “right to work” law that bans union membership or fees as a condition of employment, repeal of union-scale wage rates on public construction projects, and a law requiring an ultrasound before an abortion.
On such chronic issues, there is little room for compromise and arguably little reason for extended debate and amendments; but as Hoover’s good friend, Democratic Rep. Jeff Greer of Brandenburg, said Thursday to Kentuckians watching KET, “We’re here representing you, and you’re worth our time, and we didn’t give you the time that you deserve.”
And some amendments weren’t just talking points. Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, wanted to exempt victims of rape and incest from what he called “a second horrific experience” via the ultrasound bill, showing the House the long instrument used for trans-vaginal ultrasounds early in pregnancy.
But the party-line votes and parliamentary maneuvers, like those Senate Republicans have been using for a few years, didn’t distinguish between amendments. House Republicans were bound and determined to get the bills to the Senate in time for Gov. Matt Bevin to sign them into law Saturday – quite a week’s work.
Rep. McKenzie Cantrell of Louisville told Hoover, “I’ve heard that you’re moving too fast … I have heard that you’re not being fair. I haven’t said that … But one word I will use to describe the process here today is inconsistent,” because Republicans said before the session began that they would focus on legislation to create jobs.
Hoover had long said that the House would pass the ultrasound bill, but there was little advance notice of a farther-reaching Senate bill to ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, which could be unconstitutional.
So, as Democrats asked, why the rush, in an organizational period that they hadn’t used to pass bills?
Hoover told reporters that Republicans wanted to “make a statement” that they’re serious about getting things done. He told the state Chamber of Commerce dinner crowd Thursday night, “We were not gonna sit here like we had always done, for one week, and do nothing.”
The Senate did likewise in 2015, but there is more political impetus now because we’ve just had an election in which voters indicated their unhappiness and impatience with government. And many voters care more about changing the system than about the kind of change or how it gets done.
Example: The most popular Kentucky governor in the history of public polling was Democrat Paul Patton in 1997, soon after he persuaded legislators to reform higher education – a controversial move that upset the University of Kentucky and its supporters. People surveyed by this newspaper’s Bluegrass Poll told me that they weren’t sure they liked everything Patton was doing, but at least he was doing something.
Moving fast and hard also makes another kind of statement, about who is boss. And in Hoover’s case, moving an abortion bill first also makes a statement to a large part of the Republican base that he is reflective of it and a good fit for the position he holds.
Hoover is a thinking, not-always-partisan conservative. He’s supported a constitutional amendment to let localities pass temporary sales taxes for specific projects, and automatic restoration of voting rights to felons who have paid their debts to society, bills other Republicans have helped block. But he has been a partisan leader at critical moments, walking Republicans out of the House in 2004 to force a vote on the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Now, as the leader of a majority, Hoover could model himself after the man who swore him in Tuesday, Circuit Judge David Williams of Burkesville, who as state Senate president became such a lightning rod for criticism that he got no traction when he ran for governor in 2011.
But Hoover is unlikely to follow the Williams model; their temperaments are different, and so are the circumstances. Williams started with a paper-thin majority and put a premium on keeping his caucus together, and extended his hardball to the Senate as a whole. Hoover has an 18-vote cushion.
Before Thursday’s contentious session, Democrats generally voiced comfort with Hoover. “He’s a rare breed,” said Denis Fleming, who was Patton’s general counsel (and is the brother of new Rep. Ken Fleming, R-Louisville). “He was always a straight shooter with us, very sharp and fair-minded, and interested in the better welfare of the state… . If Jeff Hoover continues to be the Jeff Hoover I always knew, Kentucky’s going to be in good shape.”
I agree, but I’m biased; my only brother is Hoover’s brother-in-law. We’ve always had good personal and professional relations, and kept them separate. This is the first time I’ve written mainly about him, and it is likely to be the last. My brother, Albany lawyer David Cross, is his deputy counsel during the session, so there are too many occasions for conflicts of interest. Thus, you won’t be reading much from me about the House – unless there’s a major question about “the better welfare of the state.”
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column previously appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.