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After 95 years, GOP takes control of Kentucky legislature

January 3, 2017 GMT
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, center, and Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers, left, congratulate Jeff Hoover following his being voted in as Speaker of the House, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, in Frankfort, Ky. Republicans opened a new era in complete control of the Kentucky General Assembly on Tuesday with the Senate convening and the GOP formally taking charge of the House of Representatives for the first time in nearly 100 years. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, center, and Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers, left, congratulate Jeff Hoover following his being voted in as Speaker of the House, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, in Frankfort, Ky. Republicans opened a new era in complete control of the Kentucky General Assembly on Tuesday with the Senate convening and the GOP formally taking charge of the House of Representatives for the first time in nearly 100 years. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Republicans officially took control of the Kentucky legislature on Tuesday, electing a GOP Speaker of the House for the first time in nearly a century while unveiling a priority list of bills targeting labor unions, abortion and the leadership of one of the state’s largest public universities.

With GOP Gov. Matt Bevin watching from the front row, the House of Representatives unanimously elected Jeff Hoover as the state’s first Republican Speaker of the House since 1921.

Hoover, a criminal defense attorney from Jamestown, urged his colleagues to put the divisive campaign season behind them now that Republicans control the legislative and executive functions of state government for the first time in living memory.

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But after cautioning Republicans in November to manage their expectations, on Tuesday Hoover and the Republican majority unveiled bills that would abolish mandatory union membership, repeal the prevailing wage and require women to undergo ultrasounds before abortions. The Republican majority fast-tracked those bills Tuesday and plans to pass them by week’s end.

“If you’re around here the next couple of days you better put your seat belts on because change is coming to Kentucky,” Hoover told a crowd of supporters outside the House chambers.

Standing in their way will be a significantly weakened Democratic caucus, which went from 53 to 36 of the House seats in November. That leaves them with little ability to stop the Republican agenda.

“I would say if you’re a vulnerable person, if you’re a woman, if you’re a working man or woman, it doesn’t look very good for you this session,” Democratic Rep. Joni Jenkins said.

The bill to abolish the mandatory labor union membership would make Kentucky the last southern state to pass a so-called “right-to-work” bill. The bill was filed as HB.1, meaning it is the top Republican priority for the 2017 legislative session. Hoover also sponsored a bill to repeal Kentucky’s prevailing wage law, which requires workers to be paid higher wages on public construction projects.

Republicans have tried to eliminate these wage protections for years, only to be blocked by House Democrats. But now they have super-majorities in both chambers, meaning they can unilaterally pass tax and revenue measures and put constitutional amendments on the ballot for voter approval.

Hoover said a fourth bill that could get a vote this week would address the leadership at the University of Louisville after Bevin abolished and replaced its board of trustees last year, which prompted the school’s accrediting body to put it on probation for a year, citing concerns over possible “undue political influence.”

Hoover declined to offer specifics about the bill, other than to say it would address Bevin’s executive order and the concerns raised by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

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“Every member of this General Assembly wants to do what is best for the University of Louisville,” Hoover said.

Democrats elected state Rep. Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook as the new minority leader without opposition. For the first time in years, the leadership teams of both parties in the House and Senate consists entirely of white men.

The turnover in Kentucky cemented Republicans control over every state legislature in the South.

Signs of change were evident across the capitol grounds as “wet paint” signs adorned the walls of the legislative office building, above boxes of old business cards of Democratic lawmakers who had been ousted from office.

Lingering resentments from the November elections — which featured nasty campaign ads that dredged up old accusations of DUI arrests and sexual harassment — seemed to spill out on the House floor Tuesday as the new majority pushed through rule changes.

Democrats tried to delay a vote to give their members more time to review the new rules, but Republicans easily defeated the challenge, just as Democrats routinely did when they were in power.

“Members of the minority party, now is your opportunity to trust,” Republican state Rep. Stan Lee said. “We were given the opportunity to trust for so many years. Now it is your opportunity.”