FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — With the rise of new leaders, lawmakers convened a legislative session on Tuesday, hoping for cooperation in Kentucky's split Legislature, where a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic majority in the House have been butting heads for more than a decade.
Manchester Republican Robert Stivers officially began his duties as Senate president Tuesday afternoon, pledging to work cooperatively with House Democrats and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
"We will have differences, and that's fine," Stivers said. "That is the system. But we can have differences and disagree without being disagreeable."
To back up the bipartisan rhetoric, Stivers and other GOP leaders in the Senate granted Democrats all the committee assignments they had requested. And Stivers pledged to move as quickly as possible to consider Beshear's nominees for various government positions that need Senate approval.
"Let us strive to find common ground," Stivers said. "Let us aspire to new heights and dream of greatness for a state that we so dearly love."
Democrats were hopeful that the spirit of harmony will survive beyond the first day of the legislative session.
"I think there is an almost universal feeling that there is going to see more cooperation and unity," said state Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville. "The way Stivers has described his leadership traits, the type of person he is, I think he will strive for harmony."
The legislative session started at noon Tuesday and is scheduled to end on March 26.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Johnny Ray Turner of Prestonsburg said he expects bipartisan cooperation to prevail.
"I just think that everybody is wanting things to move in a different direction," Turner said. "And I think that President Stivers is very capable and will be good to work with and will be fun to work with."
Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said "hope springs eternal" with the start of each new legislative session.
"At least, I think, there's going to be a civility to the dialogue," he told reporters.
Stivers assumed his new position with applause from Republican and Democratic colleagues. He replaces former Senate President David Williams of Burkesville who resigned late last year after the governor appointed him to a judicial seat in southern Kentucky.
Senators also elected Republican Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown as majority floor leader.
Senate President Pro Tem Katie Kratz Stine was re-elected to her leadership post. Republican Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard was elected majority whip and Dan Seum was re-elected Republican caucus chairman.
Democratic senators re-elected Sen. R.J. Palmer as minority floor leader, Turner as caucus chairman and Jerry Rhodes as minority whip.
In the House, Democrats re-elected Stumbo, Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook, Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark of Louisville, and Majority Whip Tommy Thompson of Owensboro. But they ousted Democratic caucus chairman Robert Damron of Nicholasville, electing instead Rep. Sannie Overly of Paris. Overly becomes the first woman elected to a leadership post in the Kentucky House.
Republican Rep. Jeff Hoover of Jamestown was re-elected minority floor leader by his House GOP colleagues. Rep. Bob DeWeese of Louisville was re-elected as Republican caucus chairman. And Rep. Bam Carney of Campbellsville was elected Republican whip to replace former Rep. Danny Ford, who retired.
Lawmakers are expected to deal with some tough issues, including reforming the state's tax code and returning financial solvency to the pension plan for government retirees. However, Stumbo said Tuesday he expects neither of those issues to be resolved in the regular legislative session. Instead, he said he expects a special session later in the year to deal with them.
The always-divisive issue of legislative redistricting also could be on the table in the next few weeks, as could a push by Beshear to legalize casino-style gambling.
For the past year, lawmakers have been focused on the state's pension system, trying to find a way to deal with a $33 billion unfunded liability. A legislative task force that spent months studying the issue recommended pumping in more money without saying where the money would come from.
Beshear said he wants lawmakers to pass a package of tax reforms. A group of experts appointed by Beshear to review the state's tax code proposed a model late last year that would generate about $690 million a year in additional revenue.
Legislative leaders haven't yet decided how to approach redistricting or gambling.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has said he wants to move as quickly as possible to redraw boundaries around legislative districts. Stivers said lawmakers aren't rushed because the next round of legislative elections isn't until 2014.
A legislative redistricting plan approved last year was later rejected by the Kentucky Supreme Court. Justices found that the districts were not balanced by population and had to be reworked to comply with the "one person, one vote" mandate in federal and state law.
Beshear is proposing that lawmakers consider a constitutional amendment that would legalize casino-style gambling. It's a proposal that has been introduced every year since he took office in 2007, but has never garnered enough support to pass.