Those searching for progress on the stand-off in Frankfort might not realize it, but there’s more (politics) going on than meets the eye.
Gov. Steve Beshear called a special session to amend the budget to cover a Medicaid shortfall. He and House Democrats want to move money from next year’s budget to cover it and then make that up next year with managed care savings. Republican Senate President David Williams — who like Beshear is running for governor — wants to cut other services to make up the shortfall. Complicating things further, House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover and most of his Republican caucus don’t want to cut education.
Fueling both sides’ positions of course is the governor’s race. Beshear and Democrats count on support from the Kentucky Education Association which represents teachers and KEA relies on them not to cut education. Williams seems convinced that public disaffection with federal government spending will carry him to a win in first the Republican primary and then this fall if he holds firm on “living within our means.” Usually the master of the Frankfort political chess board, Williams (so far) appears outmaneuvered by House Speaker Greg Stumbo (you were expecting Beshear?). Williams is trying to find a way to stick with his cuts, but show Republicans support education while persuading the House to deal.
But Hoover’s statement in the last days of the regular session that his caucus opposes cuts to education has cornered Williams, again for now. He has a history of pulling a rabbit out of the legislative hat. As Williams squirmed and sometimes fumed, Beshear began flying around the state Monday criticizing Williams’ “obstruction” and accusing him of wasting taxpayers’ money by forcing a special session. But Beshear mishandled a question about the cost of the fly-around, saying he was just doing his job as governor and is “not going to apologize for a minute” for the cost.
While they fight it out, Hoover and Stumbo strengthened their positions with their members. Stumbo was greeted by applause from his members when he and Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark refused to back off their position in negotiations with Williams who often out maneuvered House Democrats under former Speaker Jody Richards. As one lobbyist put it: “If Jody were still Speaker, we’d already have a deal. Of course, it would be David’s deal.”
There are a some dissidents but Hoover has significantly strengthened his position with House Republicans. That’s because a they wanted to deliver a message to Williams only slightly different than the one House Democrats wished to deliver. Williams typically ignores the House Republicans until negotiations reach a climax and then tells them what position he expects them to take. Hoover’s moves have made House Republicans relevant again and they’ve also made themselves important to Beshear’s and Stumbo’s strategy. If Hoover’s members aren’t included in House negotiations, it undercuts the Democrats’ claim that only Williams stands in the way of an otherwise bi-partisan deal.
There are conflicting accounts of how Republican heavyweights who support Williams for governor are viewing all of this. I’ve been told they want him to hold firm on a position they think sells with the public while others say some view his stance as a miscalculation. For now the question is whether Williams will pull that rabbit out of his hat, maintain the standoff indefinitely or ultimately get the best deal he can and declare that if the Beshear plan fails the flood of cuts next January will be on the Democrats’ — and Hoover’s — hands.