(Bud Kraft, LRC Public Information)
Like many states with split-party legislatures, Kentucky had grown accustomed in recent years to partisan gridlock that ground most lawmaking to a halt. But since Robert Stivers took over as Senate president in 2013, he’s played a key role in guiding the legislature to multiple productive sessions, addressing a range of issues important to Kentuckians.
One problem that’s plagued the state in recent years is a severe heroin epidemic. Lawmakers had tried and failed to pass legislation before, and disagreements over sentencing reforms and a needle exchange program stalled talks earlier this year. So Stivers, a Republican, took on the role of lead negotiator as details of the bill were hammered out in a conference committee, a rare move in the state for a leader of a legislative chamber. The resulting bill included a comprehensive set of measures aimed at curbing heroin overdoses, earning wide praise from all corners of the commonwealth. Kentucky also faced a shortage of funding for much-needed infrastructure improvements, as its gas tax is tied to the declining wholesale price of fuel. Although Stivers says he generally supports lower taxes, he worked to gain support from his Senate colleagues for a measure that sets a floor on the tax, staving off future cuts.
Brokering agreements has meant working both with Democrats controlling the House and members of his own party in the Senate, who often have vastly different priorities mirroring their suburban or rural constituencies. Stivers says he’s established a dialogue by being inclusive and working to educate his members on the policy implications of legislation. “You have to open the communications line,” he says, “and have an ability to have frank discussions that don’t play out in the paper.”
Stivers’ dedication to fairness and pragmatism overrides personal politics: Early this year, a longtime friend and Senate Republican colleague was charged with driving under the influence. An attorney argued for the charge to be dropped, citing a state provision that allows members of the General Assembly to be shielded from an arrest. Stivers issued a statement criticizing legislative immunity. “I felt that my overriding job of protecting the institution of the Senate had to be my priority that day,” he says.
Plenty of unfinished business still remains. Lawmakers haven’t found a fix for the large shortfall facing the state’s teacher retirement system, for example, and Stivers says his top priority is growing the state’s economy.
Republican Matt Bevin was recently elected to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. But the House and Senate will remain split until at least 2017.
Still, with Stivers leading the Senate, there’s reason to be optimistic. “We obviously don’t always agree,” says Beshear, “but he is a person who is willing to sit down and discuss any issue, using some common sense and trying to find a path forward.”
-- By Mike Maciag
Read about the rest of the 2015 Public Officials of the Year and watch his acceptance speech below: