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Republicans Say Ky. Supreme Court Wrong To Rule Against Pension Bill

Ryland Barton

Gov. Matt Bevin and Republican state lawmakers lashed out at the Kentucky Supreme Court after it struck down the controversial pension bill that passed into law earlier this year.

The seven justices on Kentucky’s high court unanimously ruled that Republican leaders of the legislature violated the state constitution by rushing the pension bill to passage without following proper procedures intended give lawmakers and the public time to understand the legislation.

Bevin, the GOP leaders of both legislative chambers and the Republican Party of Kentucky all disagreed with the outcome.

The House Republican Caucus issued a statement saying that the ruling revealed “a complete and total lack of understanding for the separation of powers.”

“It disrespects the hard work done by the people’s elected representatives and ignores the constitutional foundations of the three branches of government,” House Republicans wrote in a statement.

The Kentucky Constitution requires bills to be formally presented on three separate days before they are eligible for a vote.

Though lawmakers usually follow this process, they sometimes vote to override the “reading” requirement, especially when time is running out late in the legislative session.

In the case of the pension bill, Republican leaders of the legislature emptied out a bill dealing with the governance of sewage districtsthat had already received readings in both the House and Senate, and filled it with 291 pages of changes to the state’s retirement systems.

With supermajorities in both chambers of the Kentucky legislature, Republicans quickly passed the bill within about 6 hours.

Though the Supreme Court didn’t weigh in on what exactly counts as a “reading” in its ruling, it said that the lawmakers’ attempt was inadequate.

“In deference to the General Assembly, we necessarily stop short of providing a complete and precise definition of what must occur to qualify as a reading of the bill, but we are well-settled in the conviction that what occurred here falls far short of the requirements of § 46,” Justice Daniel Venters wrote in the opinion.

In response, Bevin called the unanimous decision “an unprecedented power grab by activist judges.”

“By striking down SB 151 based on process, rather than merit, the Kentucky Supreme Court has chosen to take for itself the law-making power that the constitution grants to the legislature,” Bevin wrote in a statement.

“This is very dangerous. In the long-term, this will erode the rule of law that is the foundation of our government, but more immediately, this will destroy the financial condition of Kentucky.”

‘The problem is not going away’

Bevin and Republican leaders of the legislature have said that the pension bill was necessary to help save the state’s public retirement system which has a $37 billion unfunded liability.

But the pension bill would have done little to address the state’s current pension debt because it would mostly affect future workers, especially teachers, who would receive 401(k)-type retirement plans instead of defined benefit pensions.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, said in a statement that the General Assembly would consider new pension legislation “because the problem is not going away and is only getting worse.”

“Funding alone cannot fix the problems that face our pension system; structural changes are necessary unless Kentuckians are to face massive tax increases,” Stivers said.

“The people of the Commonwealth deserve a solution to the pension crisis which sustains current pension promises and makes the systems for future hires affordable and fiscally responsible.”

It’s unclear how the Republican-led legislature will proceed in the upcoming legislative session.

Since the Supreme Court did not rule on whether or not the specific alterations to the pension system were legal, it’s possible that lawmakers could pass the same legislation but follow proper procedures.

Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear has maintained that the pension bill was illegal because it tweaked some benefits to current employees.

Republicans have presaged that the ruling would leave laws that have passed in similar fashion vulnerable to legal challenges.

The Supreme Court wasn’t swayed by that argument.

“Any infirmities that might have been raised in timely fashion to challenge the enactment of now well-established laws are beyond the purview of this opinion,” the ruling stated.

“Moreover, we are not persuaded from the record here that such a potential parade of horrors awaits.”

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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