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Kentucky Politics Distilled: Pension Bill Derails

Ryland Barton

This week in Kentucky politics, the state senate decided to not vote on a controversial pension bill as teachers and other state workers protested at the state capitol. It’s unclear how the legislation might be revised and lawmakers only have a little more than two weeks until a major deadline in this year’s legislative session.

On Friday, the state Senate was scheduled to vote on a bill that would tweak pension benefits of state workers and require the legislature to put more money into the retirement systems every year. That was before public workers, especially teachers, descended on the Capitol.

The Senate’s Republicans majority met behind closed doors most of the day. Senate President Robert Stivers recognized he needed more time after saying he had the votes to pass the bill on Thursday.

“Our caucus members want to have a full discussion about the implications of the bill,” said Stivers. “One of the things I’ve always committed to is that we’ll have full and open discussions, and members of our caucus would have opportunities to ask questions, have discussions, understand implications. That’s what we’re doing.”

The current version of the pension bill would move most recently-hired workers and future workers into less generous retirement plans. Future teachers would see the biggest reduction and currently retired teachers would have cost of living adjustments cut by a third for about the next 20 years.

Stivers said it would be, “difficult” to pass the bill in its current form.

The bill has been sent back to the State and Local Government Committee, which will likely try to amend it in order to make it more appealing to on-the-fence lawmakers.

Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, a Democrat, attributed the delay on pressure from rural lawmakers.

“As you know this is a very unpopular concept when you get outside of some of the urban areas in Kentucky. Your school boards are your biggest employers in almost every small county,” said Jones. “Public education touches almost every life in rural Kentucky.”

Jones praised teachers for putting pressure on lawmakers.

“This fight is not over. It is far from over. Next week you need to have 1,000 teachers her and you need to let them hear it louder than ever,” said Jones.

Even if it had passed the Senate, it was unclear how much support the pension bill had in the politically-unwieldy House or even whether Gov. Matt Bevin would sign it.

Throughout the week, Bevin said he would reserve his opinions on the legislation until it was on his desk.

“You don’t sign a bill until it’s actually put in front of you,” said Bevin, “and the bill that will be put in front of me, we don’t know yet what that’ll look like.”

Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear said he won’t defend the legislation if it becomes law and someone sues over it.

Bevin said teachers shouldn’t be upset by changes to retirement benefits, which he said would help save the pension system.

“The reality is this: I’m saving the pension system. If they’re upset about it, it’s because their either ill-informed of willfully blind. I think the vast majority of teachers are none of the above. They’re very aware of the fact that they want a pension. Their leadership has their reasons for fomenting things, God bless ‘em. But I’m still going to save the pension whether they like it or not,” said Bevin.

Lawmakers have a little more than two weeks to pass legislation before Gov. Matt Bevin’s designated “veto period.” After that point they have two more days to pass bills or try and override any vetoes.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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