Less than a week after mostly party-line votes on House versions of the state budget and a proposed 1.5 cent increase on the “floor” of gasoline taxes, the Republican Party of Kentucky has launched a series of robocalls targeting Democrat-held districts.
It’s unclear exactly how far-reaching the GOP’s push has been, but RPK Chairman Steve Robertson said the party has made such calls “in a number of places in the state where we are working to make sure constituents know what their elected representatives are doing in Frankfort.” He declined to elaborate.
Votes on the revenue bill — which would raise the lowest possible gas tax to 32.3 cents per gallon, the tax rate on Dec. 31, beginning June 1 — and the $20 billion budget split largely along party lines.
House Bill 445, the revenue bill, passed 53-44 with Reps. Steven Rudy, R-West Paducah, and Jim Stewart, R-Flat Lick, voting for the bill and Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, voting “no” March 12. Reps. Bart Rowland, R-Tompkinsville, and Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, did not vote.
House Bill 235, the executive branch’s spending plan, passed the next day 53-46 with Reps. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, and Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, voting “no” and Reps. Steven Rudy, R-West Paducah, and Jim Stewart, R-Flat Lick, in favor.
Incumbent Democrats, who hold a 54-46 advantage in the House, are being challenged in 30 districts this fall, and Republicans could continue their efforts as the session nears its end, depending on what issues the House considers between now and sine die, Robertson said.
“The House Democratic caucus in this session is the gift that keeps on giving,” he said, “and just based on the reaction to some of the projects we’ve conducted, I think many voters out there are actually quite alarmed.”
House Speaker Greg Stumbo said he’d heard from some among his caucus about the calls, but Republicans are simply “carrying the water for the big oil companies.”
The tax on gasoline, based on the average wholesale price of gas, would not be lower than its rate Dec. 31, he said. Revenue from the tax floor increase is a key funding source for the $4.5 billion Biennial Highway Construction Plan, which passed the House 51-43 Tuesday, the same day it cleared the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee.
“All we did was try to freeze the price of gasoline at the level that it was on the last day of December of 2013, and that’s what we did,” Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said of raising the tax rate floor in HB 445. “But as you know the prices went up, and the penny that was frozen would have just gone to the pockets of the big oil companies.”
Democrats are ready to hit back with a message of their own.
“We’re going to be doing some calls into some contested districts as well, which will remind voters that the Republicans in Washington are trying to take over Kentucky and bring gridlock and Washington-style gridlock to Kentucky,” Stumbo said.
House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover said he had seen a list of targeted Democratic districts from Robertson, though he couldn’t recall particulars. “There were nine, 10 or 11 different districts,” he said.
Hoover said he doesn’t know how effective the robocalls will be in the fall elections, but “people in those districts need to be informed of how their representatives vote on a significant gas tax increase at a time when gas prices are escalating and folks all over Kentucky are frustrated by the increase in the gas prices at the pump.”
So far, Hoover, R-Jamestown, has “appreciated” the House Democratic leadership’s agenda.
“They have, one, taken a vote on the minimum wage increase, which was an unfunded mandate of many million dollars on our school districts and local governments,” he said. “They have voted to increase the gas tax in this state, and they have forced us to vote on the road plan, which we only had a few minutes to review.”
Some of the House votes this session could be a lynchpin for GOP success this fall, said Hoover.
“We’re defending 42 seats, which means we have to have an outright pickup of nine members,” he said. “That is difficult. We all recognize that will be difficult, but we certainly think with some of the actions of House Democrats already this session, there are several issues there that the people of Kentucky will not approve of, and it’s going to be a competitive, tough campaign year.”
Stumbo brushed off criticism of his leadership style and doled out his own.
“It’s a shame that the once proud Republican Party’s been taken over by fanatics and extremists like him,” he said when told Robertson compared him to Democratic U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi during her time as speaker of the U.S. House.