In most years, the latter half of December is when the Capitol is at its quietest. The joint House and Senate meetings are over, and legislators are back home, enjoying the holidays while preparing for the General Assembly’s return in early January.
That routine was broken this month, however, when rumors began circulating on Monday that Governor Bevin was planning to call a special legislative session to counter the Dec. 13 Kentucky Supreme Court ruling that struck down this year’s high-profile public-pension bill.
When rumor became reality that afternoon, he gave legislators just four hours’ notice to be at the Capitol. It wasn’t the quickest call ever for a special session — his office cited one from 1937 in which the governor only gave legislators 30 minutes — but it certainly was a challenge for those of us living more than an hour or two away.
Many were unable to make it in such a short timeframe, meaning those they represented, about 43,000 Kentuckians per House member, did not have a voice in the chamber when the session was gaveled in that evening.
That unfortunately has been the trend with the public-pension issue from the start. You may recall that the bill from March was presented and then passed by the House and Senate in less than seven hours.
Only a select few were able to offer input, and that did not include any minority-party members, teachers, public employees or virtually anyone else with a vested interest. The bill could not even be read online before it was on the governor’s desk to be signed into law. That rushed approach was ultimately what caused the Supreme Court to unanimously reject the legislation.
We began the special session heading down the same path. Almost no one saw the bill before it was sent to committee, and there also was no financial analysis as state law requires of any proposal seeking to alter the state’s public retirement systems. This is a critical document, because it details the short- and long-term impact of what any changes would do. It’s the only way to really know if what we’re considering is good public policy.
As you know by now, last week’s special session ended about 24 hours after it began, without any action and at a cost to taxpayers of about $100,000. It fell apart when the majority party found itself split in four ways: Some opposed any changes to the retirement systems; some wanted an identical version of what had passed in March; some, like the governor, wanted a watered-down bill in the hopes of avoiding another court case; and the final group sought even more substantive changes.
House leaders realized that they could not reach a compromise in the short amount of time they had available, given the fact that the state constitution bars the General Assembly from meeting on Sundays and state holidays like Christmas.
Other legislators and I questioned why we should have had a special session at all, given we would be back at the Capitol in three weeks. We also noted that nearly a third of the 100 House members arriving in January would be new and should therefore have a hand in writing policy that would affect the state for decades to come.
For those asking what should happen next, the short answer is that we need to stay on the course legislators set in 2013, when major bipartisan reforms were enacted. Those changes, and the increased funding we’ve budgeted since then, give us a solid blueprint to follow. Over time, much like paying down a mortgage on a house, we will see the liabilities dwindle and the retirement systems return to solid financial footing.
Although I believe maintaining the 2013 reforms is the best course of action, there is little doubt that the governor and legislative leaders will try again in 2019 to take us in a different direction. If their third plan is anything like the first two we saw in March and last week, however, it will cost all of us more while giving our public employees less. That lose-lose proposition is not one I can support.
Whatever they propose, they must give legislators and the public alike more than a day or two to review it. The last thing we need is repeat of what happened in March and last week’s special session.