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Will Gov. Bevin’s Special Legislative Session On Pensions Happen?

J. Tyler Franklin

When Gov. Matt Bevin vetoed the pension bill that passed out of the legislature last month, he promised to call lawmakers back to Frankfort to do it all over again in a special legislative session before July 1.

But the timing of the yet-to-be-announced session is complicated, because state universities affected by the measure say they need clarity on whether they will face massive increases in the amount they have to contribute to the pension systems when they start writing their budgets on June 1.

Further complicating the issue are the Kentucky Derby on May 4 and statewide primary elections on May 21.

Plus Bevin is facing an uphill battle with Republican leaders of the legislature, who are already mad at him for nixing the pension bill.

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown, said on KET’s Kentucky Tonight that he thinks it’s a “tossup” whether the session takes place at all.

“I hope that happens quickly if we’re going to have a special session. I do think there’s a chance that we will not have a special session. I think there’s a chance that we don’t pass anything,” Thayer said.

Thayer said he hoped a session would take place in the week after the Kentucky Derby.

The pension bill vetoed by Bevin earlier this month would have allowed regional universities and other agencies to “buy out” of the state’s pension system to avoid a spike in their pension costs.

It would have also allowed the state to take over the agencies’ finances and suspend benefits of their retirees if the agencies default on pension payments.

Universities said the measure would have helped them avoid tuition increases and cuts to services. Many agencies like local health departments and rape crisis centers said they would have to close if they were required to make the higher pension contributions.

Bevin nixed the measure, saying it would have hurt the state’s finances and left the state vulnerable to a legal challenge because of the provision allowing the state to suspend retirement benefits.

Republican leaders of the legislature slammed Bevin for the move, saying they had been blindsided by his opposition to the measure, and stressed that the governor needed to work with lawmakers to come to a consensus on the issue before calling a special session.

In the KET discussion, Thayer said that he hasn’t been involved in any discussions with the governor about the pension issue and that, as far as he knew, other legislative leaders hadn’t either.

“I haven’t spoken to the governor or anyone in his administration about a bill,” Thayer said.

Deja Vu?

Bevin called a special legislative session on pensions late last year, butlawmakers voted to adjourn a little less than 24 hours after it began without passing anything. Legislative leaders said Bevin called the session before determining if there was enough support to pass a new bill.

Throughout 2017, Bevin also promised to call a special legislative session to deal with pensions and tax reform, but he never called one.

It costs taxpayers about $66,000 per day for the legislature to be in session.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Republican from Winchester and Bevin’s running mate in his reelection effort, said last week that he had been working with the governor’s office on a “framework” for a new bill.

“I’ve been trying to reassure members of the House and Senate ‘hey look, I’m involved, we’re working on trying to get something moving forward, we’re trying to make sure that what we’re going to propose is going to be actuarially sound,” Alvarado said after an event in Paducah.

“Once we have that, we’ll get a bill draft, get everybody involved. I’ve reached out to stakeholders as well.”

Alvarado told WKMS that the “framework” still includes a provision that allows regional universities to exit the pension system.

Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Democrat from Louisville, said he didn’t like the pension measure and agreed with the rationale of Bevin’s veto, but wasn’t sure he’d agree with whatever proposal the governor comes up with.

“I think we need to have a special session, I think the deadline needs to be set. And I think in a transparent and open way, we need to get the legislation drafted before we go into a special session,” McGarvey said.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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