Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin's administration hasn't built enough "comfort level" among lawmakers to get his pension-relief proposal through the Republican-led House in a potential special legislative session, the House speaker said Wednesday.
Speaker David Osborne said discussions continue in an effort to "try to get those votes" for Bevin's plan, which aims to provide relief to some state-funded agencies struggling with surging retirement payments. The proposal would replace a pension measure vetoed by the governor in April after lawmakers had ended this year's regular legislative session.
"As of right now, I don't believe that there is a comfort level that the necessary votes are there to pass that particular proposal," Osborne told reporters.
Bevin sent a letter to lawmakers last week urging them to "do the financially responsible thing" as he sought support for his struggling proposal. Members of Bevin's team have met with lawmakers to try to build support for the measure in a special session the governor wants to call. Bevin is grappling with the politically treacherous issue as he seeks reelection this year.
Legislative leaders have said it's up to Bevin to line up support for his pension proposal.
"It's my understanding that they are closer to that point," Senate President Robert Stivers said as he and Osborne spoke with reporters at the state Capitol.
Regional universities as well as county health departments, rape crisis centers and many other quasi-governmental agencies face ballooning pension costs on July 1 unless action is taken.
State leaders worry that inaction would strain the state's quasi-public agencies and lead to some bankruptcies, elimination of staff and loss of critical services for Kentuckians.
Bevin's plan has been endorsed by regional university presidents and picked up support from some representatives of local health departments, mental health centers and other agencies.
His proposal allows the agencies to stay with the Kentucky Retirement Systems at full cost, leave the retirement system by paying a lump sum equal to future projected benefits payments or buy their way out in installment payments over 30 years. It extends a freeze on pension costs for another year for the regional universities and quasi-public agencies.
Lawmakers are expressing various concerns about the proposal, the House and Senate leaders said.
"Some people are for it as it stands; some people don't think that it goes far enough; other people think it's too harsh," Stivers said.
House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins said his fellow House Democrats don't support Bevin's proposal. Democrats believe the governor's plan would violate the "inviolable contract," language in state law that guarantees employees get the benefits promised when hired, he said.
Adkins called for a freeze on pension contribution rates for regional universities and quasi-public agencies while lawmakers work on a pension proposal next year. He called it a "common sense" approach that could be accomplished quickly in a special session.
"You give the relief where the relief is needed," said Adkins, who is running for governor.
Bevin said in his recent letter to lawmakers that he opposes merely freezing those pension contribution rates, saying "the days of kicking the pension can down the road" are over.
Another question is how many votes Bevin's proposal would need to pass in a special session.
Adkins said the measure would need at least 60 votes in the 100-member House because it's an appropriations bill. Such bills require a higher threshold of support in each legislative chamber in odd-numbered years. Osborne said the bill would need 51 votes to pass.
Without getting 60 votes, the measure would likely draw a court challenge, Adkins said.