FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Senate Republicans selected a mountain politician to be their top leader on Tuesday in a move that ensures Kentucky's Appalachian region remains well-represented in the Legislature.
Robert Stivers of Manchester was chosen to become Senate president during a closed caucus in Frankfort. He will replace former Burkesville lawmaker David Williams, who resigned to accept a judicial position in southern Kentucky.
When Stivers officially moves into the role in January, the Appalachian region will have supplied many of the Legislature's top leaders, including Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg and Democratic House Floor Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook.
Stivers pledged Tuesday to have an open dialogue with Democratic leaders, including Gov. Steve Beshear, to resolve major issues facing Kentucky. He mentioned specifically pension reforms, unemployment, and shoring up a financially strained Medicaid program.
"We've got real problems that are going to take real people sitting down and coming up with real solutions," Stivers told reporters. "And it's not going to be something that one group can take credit for or take all the blame for. It's going to have to be a kind of a shared sacrifice, and we're going to have to have that type of dialogue between all respective groups."
Senate President Pro Tem Katie Kratz Stine was unopposed in her re-election to that position. The GOP senators chose Damon Thayer of Georgetown as majority floor leader over David Givens of Greensburg. And they chose Brandon Smith of Hazard, another Appalachian lawmaker, as whip over Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon. Dan Seum of Louisville was re-elected as Republican caucus chairman over challenger Joe Bowen of Owensboro.
Stivers, who has been serving as majority floor leader, won the presidency over independent Sen. Bob Leeper of Paducah. Stivers said he expects Leeper to retain his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee.
"From my perspective, Bob Leeper has been a good appropriations and revenue chairman," Stivers said. "I know of no reason to remove Bob Leeper."
Williams, an anti-gambling lawmaker, had led the Senate for more than a decade. Beshear lured him away by offering him a circuit judgeship serving the Burkesville area.
It was Williams' resignation that triggered Tuesday's elections.
Williams had been a hindrance to Beshear on some of his top legislative priorities, including a push to lift a constitutional ban on casino gambling. Beshear has a record of appointing anti-gambling Republicans to more lucrative government positions to get them out of the Senate.
Beshear has been pressing lawmakers to allow gambling in the state since he took office in 2007. He said he's hopeful lawmakers will pass the proposed constitutional amendment after they convene in January. If they do, the issue could be placed on the ballot in 2014 for voters to make the final call.
"That issue shows no signs of going away," said Thayer, a pro-gambling lawmaker who worked closely with Beshear in the last legislative session to try to get a gambling amendment passed.
But Republican insiders are doubtful that the change in Senate leadership will make gambling more likely to pass.
Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said he believes gambling has even less support now than in years past.
Kentucky's top Republican, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, congratulated Stivers in a statement.
"He will do an outstanding job on behalf of Kentucky, and I have total confidence that he can address the important issues facing the Legislature and help move our state forward," McConnell said. "The people of the commonwealth can be assured that Sen. Stivers and the energized, newly elected Republican leadership team in Frankfort will work hard to tackle the state's most pressing issues."