- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin walked onto the floor of the House of Representatives on Monday morning, his angry voice echoing through the empty chamber of the last legislative body in the South still controlled by Democrats.

“What are we doing?” he asked as he surveyed the rows of empty desks, hours before the House was scheduled to convene. “This is a chamber that doesn’t seem to get it.”

Bevin, Kentucky’s second Republican governor in the past four decades, is trying to remake the state’s politics and his visit to the House chamber was part of an orchestrated effort to attack its Democratic leadership. The party responded by saying, “Gov. Bevin was trying to be the star of his own phony reality show” and trying to distort the truth.

The state Senate is well in Republican hands, but Republicans have not had a majority in the House of Representatives since 1920.

That could change Tuesday, when voters in four districts sprinkled throughout the state will elect representatives in a series of special elections. The winners will take office immediately and be faced with a crucial decision: Whether to support Bevin’s proposed budget, and his $650 million in spending cuts.

House Democratic leaders have vowed to eliminate many of those budget cuts. But to do that, they will need at least 51 votes. Right now, Democrats have 50 votes and Republicans have 46. If Republicans win all four elections on Tuesday, they will share power with Democrats and likely send the legislature into chaos with just 17 working days left in the session.

Bevin went on a media offensive Monday: he posted a video on his Facebook page Monday of himself wandering through the empty House chamber and mocking Democrats for not being hard at work to pass a budget. But he took the video at 11 a.m., hours before the chamber was scheduled to convene. The House has historically started in the afternoons on Monday, to accommodate legislators from the further stretches of the state who have to drive several hours to Frankfort.

Rep. Sannie Overly, chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party, fired back with a statement saying Overly wrote that he either “doesn’t know how the process works or he was trying to distort the truth and mislead people” on the eve of election day.

“(This election) is going to be a reflection upon how people are viewing this governor and his budget,” Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a very favorable reflection.”

In Greenup County, Democrat Lew Nicholls has promised to vote against Bevin’s budget because he said it would “hurt our schools.” In Georgetown, Democrat Chuck Tackett wrote on his Facebook page he opposes Bevin’s cuts to education because “kids are our future.” In Hopkinsville, Democrat Jeffrey Taylor says the cuts “will hurt people who are already suffering.”

And in Danville, Democrat Bill Noelker said Bevin’s cuts would just lead to higher tuition for college students.

“Wealthy people are going to be really the only ones who are going to be able to go to school,” said Noelker, a former F/A-18 fighter pilot. He said a better plan would be to reform the state’s tax code, citing a 2012 report commissioned by former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear that, if implemented, would raise revenue by nearly $700 million a year_a plan dismissed by critics as a tax increase.

Republicans say the cuts are necessary to begin plugging the $35 billion hole in the state’s public pension plans. Over the weekend, the credit ratings agency Standard & Poor downgraded $1.4 billion worth of bonds from the Kentucky Turnpike Authority, citing Kentucky’s poorly funded pension systems. But Democrats say the cuts go too far, devastating public colleges and universities, preschool programs, the court system and oversight agencies that hold the governor and his administration accountable.

Philip Pratt, the Republican candidate in Georgetown, says he supports Bevin because if the pension system is not fixed it will “bankrupt the state,” a view shared by Republican Walker Wood Thomas in Hopkinsville. Tony Quillen, the Republican candidate in Greenup County, said Bevin’s budget is necessary because “it’s either painful now, or it’s killing later.” But he would not commit to how he would vote, telling a reporter you “won’t get a complete yes or no answer out of me on things.”

“I support the governor’s goal that we have to be financially stable,” he said.

Bevin has been campaigning hard for the Republican candidates, scheduled to appear at two rallies in Georgetown and Danville on Monday. He predicted a low turnout.

“What’s on the ballot is whether people are awake, whether people are taking this seriously,” Bevin said. “I hope they are.”

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