FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Democratic lawmakers have endorsed former Attorney General Greg Stumbo to become House speaker at the start of a legislative session where the top agenda item will be balancing a state budget thrown out of kilter by revenue shortfalls.
The endorsement, which came Tuesday on the first day of the 2009 legislative session, gives Stumbo the support necessary to unseat longtime House Speaker Jody Richards in what is arguably one of the three most powerful political positions in Frankfort.
In Kentucky, Democrats traditionally meet privately to select their candidates for speaker and other leadership positions, then vote as a bloc on the House floor, leaving the GOP with little say. The floor vote is scheduled for Wednesday.
"We're going to start working as soon as we hit the ground tomorrow morning on solving some of these budget problems," Stumbo told reporters. "We don't have time to celebrate. We have to get to work."
Stumbo, a Prestonsburg lawyer who served as attorney general from 2003 to 2007, served in the House from 1980 to 2004, all but five of those years as majority floor leader. Richards, owner of a wholesale book company in Bowling Green, has been a state representative since 1976 and speaker since 1995.
Gavels sounded in the Kentucky House and Senate at noon, signaling the start of the legislative session, one that will be shrouded by financial woes brought on by the ailing economy.
Returning lawmakers from communities across Kentucky hope to agree on a financial fix before they adjourn in March.
"The challenges that we face don't lend themselves to any fast or easy or cheap solutions," said state Rep. John Will Stacy, D-West Liberty. "But I'm optimistic that if we can be persistent and work in an aboveboard fashion that we can be successful."
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has already cut more than $430 million from the $19 billion state budget and now faces an additional $456.1 million shortfall. A faltering economy has resulted in less tax revenue than projected for state coffers.
"It's going to take everyone's shoulder to the wheel to get us through this crisis," Stumbo said.
Both the state's Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate have vowed to work with Beshear on solutions. Preliminary talks have gone well, Beshear said Monday.
Increasing the state's tobacco tax remains one of Beshear's primary proposals to ease the financial crunch. Beshear wants to boost the cigarette tax from 30 cents a pack to $1, and double taxes on other tobacco products. He said the moves could generate $81 million this fiscal year and an additional $144 million the following year.
The governor's proposals also include three-day unpaid furloughs for all state employees, which he said will allow the state to avoid widespread layoffs.
Beshear quickly sent out a statement congratulating Stumbo.
"It is a strong affirmation of his leadership and long-standing commitment to helping move Kentucky forward on critical issues, ranging from education and the environment to health care," Beshear said.
The governor said he wants to meet with Stumbo and Senate President David Williams, who was re-elected on Tuesday, as soon as possible to discuss ways to deal with the budget shortfall.
"I am confident that, working together, we can craft a bipartisan solution to the challenge before us," Beshear said.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)