Republican Gov. Matt Bevin warned Wednesday that Kentucky's counties will be "screwed" financially if the state's Supreme Court invalidates a new pension law, saying that unchecked increases in pension obligations will "hammer the blazes out of your budgets."
In a hard-hitting speech to a conference of local government officials, Bevin derided "small minds" and "petty people" as obstructionists, and took aim at the legal fight over the law making changes to the state's struggling retirement systems. The state's high court will decide the law's fate in a clash between Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, who sued to block the law and is now running for governor in 2019.
The pension law's opponents filed a lawsuit challenging the changes, and a state judge earlier this year blocked the law from taking effect, ruling lawmakers violated the constitution with the process they used to pass it. Bevin appealed that ruling.
"Those of you at the county level know how absolutely screwed you are, and that's about the most gracious word I can come with, how screwed you will be financially if, in fact, that lawsuit were to prevail," Bevin said in his speech. "If, in fact, the Supreme Court of Kentucky were as disregarding of the actual law and the authority of our legislature to make laws in this state as is the fellow who poses as a judge in Franklin Circuit Court."
The governor was referring to the lower-court judge who blocked the pension law.
Bevin accused Beshear of leading the legal fight against the pension changes for "purely political reasons."
In response, Beshear said in a statement that the governor had again "resorted to name-calling and fear tactics to justify his unconstitutional actions. ... I will continue to fight for our teachers, police officers, firefighters, social workers, EMS and all other public servants who deserve the pensions they were promised."
Teachers and other public workers say lawmakers need to find new revenue for what is one of the worst-funded pension systems in the country. Actuaries project the state is at least $40 billion short of the money it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years. Bevin and other Republicans say the system needs structural changes.
Earlier this year, Bevin signed the new pension law that would, among other things, require new teacher hires to be put into a hybrid plan and would restrict how teachers use sick days to calculate their retirement benefits.
Bevin warned Wednesday that only a few counties will have the financial wherewithal to afford continually rising pension costs.
"Those of you who have the responsibility to make fiscal decisions, you better hope and pray that our Supreme Court follows the law and says that our legislature actually does have the authority to pass laws," he said. "Because truthfully, not only will it hammer the blazes out of your budgets, many of your counties will fail without this."
The governor also commented on the judiciary's role in reviewing actions by the legislative branch: "If they (lawmakers) don't have the right to make laws because some judge or judges somewhere want a different end result, we're in trouble."
Bevin's term ends next year. He has not said if he will run for re-election. The Republican touted his stewardship of Kentucky's economy, noting surging employment, business start-ups, exports of Kentucky goods and foreign investments in the state.
"The point is this, things are changing for the better," he told the large gathering of local officials.