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GOP exerts newfound influence in Kentucky Senate

January 30, 1997

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) _ The Republicans in the Kentucky Senate have formed an alliance with a few disgruntled Democrats and may soon be calling many of the shots in the chamber for the first time since the 1920s.

The shift, played out during a tense organizational session of the General Assembly earlier this month, is part of a trend in which the GOP has been increasing its legislative strength across the South.

A Democrat still holds the office of Senate president in Kentucky, so it officially remains in Democratic hands.

What the takeover will mean on the political and policy landscape may not be clear for another year, but the immediate effect has been to inflame partisan tensions that had been smoldering for years and to place Democratic Gov. Paul Patton in a delicate situation.

After the November elections, the Republicans held 18 of the chamber’s 38 seats, up dramatically from just six years earlier, when they had only eight. As their numbers grew, Republicans chafed under the Democrats, whose control of the Senate had been unchallenged for generations.

Over the years, GOP senators were ardently more conservative and tried to push anti-abortion legislation, repeal many education initiatives and undo some health care reforms. All were blocked by the Democrats, but the fight also alienated some members of the majority, which has always been wracked by regional squabbles.

Larry Saunders, a Louisville Democrat who had not been part of the inner circle, saw an opening this time. He joined with four alienated Democrats from eastern Kentucky and the 18 Republicans to become Senate president. A Democratic ally, Walter Blevins, won the job of president pro tem.

``I’ve termed Larry Saunders a Judas to the party and they have entered into an unholy alliance,″ said Sen. Dan Seum, a Louisville Democrat.

Saunders, Blevins and the others denied bolting their party.

``We voted for Democrats. We don’t think we really violated being a Democrat,″ Blevins said.

But the governor and former Senate president John ``Eck″ Rose, who had presided over the Senate for a decade, said it amounted to a GOP takeover. ``I see at this point that five Democrats have for all practical purposes become Republicans,″ Rose said.

If the Democratic Party loyalists are correct, the Kentucky Senate brings to six the number of legislative chambers that are in GOP control across the 12 Southern states.

According to the Southern Political Report, Republicans also hold 51 percent more seats in the region’s legislatures than they did six years ago.

Under Saunders, Republicans were selected as vice chairmen of Senate committees for the first time. They could end up presiding if some Democrats refuse on principle to accept an appointment from the renegade Saunders.

As for the governor, he has aligned himself with the 15 Democratic loyalists but said he will try to work with Saunders.

There is no regular session of the General Assembly scheduled until January 1998, so Patton’s plan to call a special session to overhaul higher education _ perhaps in the spring _ may feel the first real effect. The governor acknowledged there could be legislative gridlock.

The Kentucky House remains strongly in Democratic control, with a 64-36 majority. And House Democrats said they now may be cast in the role of killing GOP bills from the Senate.

The Republicans have never held an outright majority in the Kentucky Senate, although a similar coup in 1920 brought the GOP into effective control for a brief period.

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