GOP leaders: Bevin lacks votes to pass pension bill in House

May 6, 2019

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin lacks the votes to push his replacement pension bill through a special legislative session he has promised to convene, some top GOP lawmakers said Monday.

House Majority Floor Leader John “Bam” Carney said the governor is getting closer to gaining enough support, but said Bevin has work to do to line up enough votes in the GOP-led House.

“They’re still short of the votes to pass it, but they continue to reach out to members,” Carney said in a phone interview.

Members of Bevin’s team on Monday spent two hours briefing House Democrats on the Republican governor’s draft bill, presented as an alternative to a pension bill he vetoed. The goal is to give relief to regional universities and many agencies facing surging pension costs.

Legislative leaders have said it’s up to Bevin to craft the new bill and line up support. The governor is grappling with the politically treacherous issue as he seeks re-election this year.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said Monday the governor’s bill would have a “pretty good chance” of passing the Republican-dominated Senate. But he said the bill lacks the votes in the House, based on recent conversations he had with some GOP House members.

Thayer supports the governor’s proposal, calling it a “pretty good work product,” but he acknowledged that the outcome for the measure is far from certain.

“I think there’s a chance that we don’t have a special session and we deal with this in January — which is going to mean six very painful months for some of these agencies,” he said by phone.

Regional universities as well as county health departments, rape crisis centers and many other quasi-governmental agencies face ballooning pension costs on July 1. Bevin’s administration and lawmakers are trying to head off those increases, worried the surging pension obligations could jeopardize some crucial services for Kentuckians.

Bevin’s plan basically 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 buying 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.

His 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.

Thayer said Monday he would oppose a stand-alone freeze in pension contribution rates, saying such a move would be “fiscally irresponsible and an abdication of leadership.”

“I will not agree to a freeze unless there are back-end pension reforms,” he said.

The governor’s deputy chief of staff, Bryan Sunderland, said he’s heard similar concerns from some lawmakers that such a move would “dig another deeper hole” for public pension plans.

Sunderland didn’t shed any light on the timing of a special session as he and other Bevin aides briefed House Democrats about the governor’s pension bill.

Later when talking with reporters, Sunderland said: “When the General Assembly has the votes to pass this, I think the governor will exercise his option to call a special session.”

House Minority Whip Joni Jenkins said her Democratic House colleagues have concerns about the governor’s proposal, but said it’s still early in the process.

“I think at this point, nobody is ready to go in and vote on this bill,” she told reporters. “There are still a lot of questions.”

Bevin’s team acknowledged the difficulty of tackling the state’s deep-rooted pension problems as they briefed House Democrats.

“We are surrounded by unhappy options,” State Budget Director John Chilton said.

Kentucky has one of the worst-funded pension systems in the country, but Bevin has had a turbulent time in trying to revamp it. He called lawmakers back to the Capitol last December to vote on a much broader pension bill that had been struck down by Kentucky’s Supreme Court. Lawmakers adjourned without passing any legislation. Taxpayers were left with a bill of about $120,000 for the two-day session.