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Jeff Hoover, first Republican speaker of House in 95 years, looks back on session — and planning ahead

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By Brad Bowman
The State Journal

Jeff Hoover hasn’t taken time to celebrate the end of the 2017 session as Kentucky’s first elected Republican speaker of the House in 95 years.

He’s assembling a new infrastructure workgroup and crafting legislation for the next session to address Kentucky’s crippling opioid problem and lack of treatment for addiction. Hoover remains focused on the future, and despite the calls for a special session to address tax reform and the state’s pension woes, he’s not convinced there will be one.

Hoover, R-Jamestown, sat down with The State Journal to discuss his first session from the speaker’s chair, highlights of the 2017 session as part of the state’s new Republican supermajority and new initiatives his office is working on.

“Without question, it was —in the 21 years that I’ve been here — the most productive legislative session that I’ve been a part of,” Hoover said. “When you talk to folks who have been here a lot longer than me, they all have the same reaction: historic, most significant in decades when you talk about the policies that were passed. From a personal standpoint, it’s something I’ve worked and aspired to do for 20 years. I really enjoyed it. Even though there was a lot of disagreement on policy, I tried to be very fair and very open about the process to allow their participation and give them (the Democratic minority) every opportunity to say what they wanted to say and to debate what they wanted to debate.”

Right-to-work legislation, which allows employees to work in unionized companies and receive union-negotiated benefits without paying union dues, was one of the first bills passed by the Republican supermajority. Kentucky was the 27th state to pass such legislation, which Democrats have historically opposed. For Hoover it was one of two of the most significant bills passed in the session.

“The right-to-work bill, as we are seeing now, is transforming this state with the businesses coming to Kentucky and creating jobs just as many of us have said for years it would do,” Hoover said. “And the ultrasound bill (requiring women seeking an abortion undergo an ultrasound), the very first vote that a new Republican majority took was a pro-life bill was very important to myself and obviously almost every member of our caucus and several members of the minority caucus. What I think that did is that it sent a message that pro-life bills, when given the opportunity to be heard, have strong bipartisan support.”

The ultrasound bill passed the House 83-12  and passed the Senate by a vote of 32-5.  The 12 opposing votes in the House included Frankfort’s Rep. Derrick Graham, Kentucky Democratic Party Chairwoman Sannie Overly and Democrats from Louisville and Lexington. Rep. James Kay didn’t vote on the bill. Similarly in the Senate, while Sen. Julian Carroll of Frankfort voted for the bill, five Democratic senators from Louisville and Lexington opposed the bill.

Braidy Industries Inc. announced in April it will build a $1.3 billion aluminum mill employing 550 people in eastern Kentucky, which has lost both manufacturing and coal jobs. The company expects construction to be complete in 2020.

Gov. Matt Bevin asked state lawmakers to give him authority to borrow $15 million during the session to lure the company, and the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority gave approval for up to $10 million in tax incentives.
Braidy Industries Inc. CEO Craig Bouchard said right-to-work legislation influenced his decision to locate the business in Kentucky.

When asked about critics who say it wasn’t a success of the right-to-work law but more the result of corporate welfare, Hoover said it isn’t any different from incentives given to industry in the past.

“What I would say to those people (criticizing the legislation) is, if the state of Kentucky needs to invest in companies to locate here and provide jobs to 600 people at an average salary of $70,000 a year and provide those jobs in an area of the state which has been completely devastated in the past eight to 10 years, then I think it’s a good investment for the commonwealth of Kentucky, ” Hoover said.

“It’s really no different than anything that’s gone on before. The Economic Development Cabinet gives tax credits, tax incentives, and what that means is if a company meets certain goals … the money they collect on state withholding is rebated back to them. It’s a win-win for everyone. What we did with Braidy Industries is no different than I don’t know how many different situations in past years. The good thing about Braidy is it’s actually in an area that is the most economically depressed area in the state.”

Going forward

Many of Hoover’s Democratic counterparts have said he’s more moderate than right-wing Tea Party legislators or that he’s a moderate because he attempts to be fair and that he’s even-keeled. Hoover said he has conservative values, but he’s not as far of a right-wing conservative as others. Some may consider him a moderate, Hoover said, because he wants to be fair and that he is purposely cautious.

Before the start of the 2017 session, he wanted to move cautiously with the large number of bills moving through the General Assembly. He told The State Journal the same must be done with tax reform and the state pension system.

In April, Bevin’s administration put out a request for proposals from tax attorneys to develop a report on taxation options. Bevin has previously said he would look at consumption-tax opportunities in Kentucky and that “there are no sacred cows” that won’t be looked at. Currently, the state doesn’t tax groceries or prescription drugs.

“I’m not convinced, in all honesty, that we will have a special session,” Hoover said. “I know the governor has said that. That’s what he wants to do. I know everyone thinks we need to, would like to address tax reform and pension reform before the regular session. We are not going to get recommendations from whomever is hired through his request for proposals as far as an attorney … until Oct. 1. To me, whatever the recommendation is with regard to tax reform or pension reform, there has to be a period of education. There has to be a period of publicizing whatever those proposals are and selling to the people. First of all, selling it to the people and selling it to the Legislature.”

Hoover said he has advised Bevin that, after releasing his proposals for pension and tax reform, “he needs 90 to 120 days to go around the state and sell it. I gave the example of Paul Patton (former governor) in 1997.”

Patton called a special session for postsecondary education reform, Hoover said. Patton had a vision of separating community colleges from part of the University of Kentucky and it was a tough sell. Patton took several months to travel across the state and sell his idea to the people. Similarly, Hoover doesn’t think most Kentuckians know how dire the situation is with the state pension system and Bevin needs time to inform people about it. That process could take the remaining months leading up to the 2018 session.

Ahead of the next session, Hoover assembled a workgroup to tackle the state’s adoption process. This week, he will reveal another workgroup tasked with finding revenue needed for the state’s transportation infrastructure.

“We have bridges in this state that are in such state of disrepair it’s very dangerous,” Hoover said. “There has been some discussion about doing something with the gas tax and dedicating some of that money to a bond pool that would be used to make much-needed repairs. I’m going to put together a workgroup to study how we fund our transportation and infrastructure in Kentucky. There’s no question our road receipts are down. When road receipts are down, you can’t do the things you need to do to maintain your infrastructure. I’m putting together a workgroup that will be very bipartisan. I hope to do it in the next week or so, hopefully have some recommendations by December to incorporate into our road plan budget.”

Despite past reforms of heroin legislation, Kentucky’s opioid and heroin addiction numbers continue to rise. Ahead of the 2018 session, Hoover’s working on a bill that would create a funding mechanism for treatment needed throughout the state.

“Without question, the opioid controlled-substance issue is the biggest societal problem that we have,” Hoover said. “In my dealings as a small-town attorney who does a lot of criminal defense, the biggest issue for those folks is lack of treatment. It affects every single family that I know. It’s devastating. I’m working on a plan that would provide some mechanism to fund additional residential treatment facilities in Kentucky. It is really early. I’ve got a broad picture of what I want to do, but there’s a way to do it.”

Brad Bowman is political reporter for The State-Journal in Frankfort. This first appeared there.

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2 Comments

  1. Marv Dunn says:

    Sorry Mr. Speaker, but no amount of horn blowing will negate the fact that your first session as House Speaker was a dismal failure. Now that we have an all Republican all the time state and federal government, the citizens will suffer their policies. Kentucky has turned the calendar back decades. Greg Stumbo was not my favorite Democrat but he, along with a Democrat majority, was successful in preventing the most oppressive bills that came out of the Senate from becoming law. As time goes by, I think many of us will look back favorably to those days.

  2. Thomas J. Theriot says:

    Speaker Hoover was part of getting some good things done but he does have a record of taxing and spending. There is no revenue problem coming in but there sure is a lot of wasteful spending and layers and layers of bureaucratic government. And what both sides of the aisle are doing on the heroin and other addiction problems is nothing short of socialism.

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