Kentucky and its public pensions are often in the news and this year has been no exception. In just the past two weeks, the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously struck down the hurriedly passed pension-gutting bill, SB 151, and then Governor Matt Bevin called a special session of the legislature to deal with pensions — which lasted all of 23 hours. In today’s post we are going to recap all of the latest twists and turns in the ongoing Kentucky pension drama.
In March of this year, Republicans in the Kentucky General Assembly introduced and passed a pension-gutting bill in less than eight hours. The bill, which originally dealt with sewage, had the pension-gutting language shoved into it with little warning. The text of the bill was not even publicly available until the day after the legislation passed. Following the rushed passage of SB 151, Kentucky’s Attorney General, Andy Beshear, along with the Kentucky Education Association and the Fraternal Order of Police sued to have the law dismissed as unconstitutional.
In June, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled in favor of Beshear, KEA, and FOP, striking down the law. Governor Bevin appealed Judge Shepherd’s ruling directly to the Kentucky Supreme Court. The court heard the case in September. On December 13th, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that SB 151 was unconstitutional because of the rushed process through which legislators forced the bill. This ruling was a great victory for working families in the Bluegrass State.
For longtime readers of Defined Benefit, you may remember that throughout 2017, Governor Bevin kept promising to call a special session of the legislature to address public pensions. He never did and the much-delayed process of “doing something” about pensions in Kentucky ultimately led to the rushed, unconstitutional passage of SB 151. Well, it turns out that Governor Bevin was serious about calling a special session of the legislature — he was just a year late.
At 3:45 pm on Monday, December 17th, Governor Bevin announced that he would call a five day special session of the legislature starting at 8 pm that evening. The stated purpose of this special session was to address pensions, which is code for constitutionally passing a new pension-gutting bill. Despite Governor Bevin’s insistence, many legislators seemed reluctant to have a hastily-called special session the week before Christmas and three weeks before the 2019 regular session is set to begin. Public employees, retirees, and their allies mobilized and began making thousands of phone calls, sending emails, and visiting the state capitol to urge legislators to adjourn the special session and protect retirement security.
On Tuesday, December 18th, less than 24 hours after the special session began, House Speaker David Osborne adjourned the special session, putting an end to any more threats to pensions in Kentucky in 2018. However, public employees, retirees, and their allies must remain vigilant. The Kentucky General Assembly is almost certain to take up new anti-pension legislation during the 2019 regular session. Governor Bevin seems as committed as ever to gutting pensions and eroding retirement security for working families. This is a shame because funding levels for Kentucky’s pension plans are improving now that the legislature is making its full annual contributions to the plans. The fight to protect pensions will continue, but for now, the Kentucky legislature seems to have lost its appetite for hastily passed legislation.