2011General Assembly

Kentucky Republicans rush agenda through state Senate

jcheves@herald-leader.comJanuary 7, 2011 

  • Charter schools: Senate Bill 3 would allow charter schools and generally permit parents to enroll children in the school closest to home.

    Pension plans: SB 2 would switch the state employee pension plan to a 401(k)-style system for new hires.

    Elections: SB 4 would prohibit legislative candidates from taking contributions from lobbyists and move primary elections to August.

    Abortion: SB 9 would require doctors to meet face to face with women at least 24 hours before an abortion and show them an ultrasound.

    Transparency: SB 7 would put more state government financial data online for public review.

    Constitution: SB 10 would amend the state constitution to protect certain rights some believe are threatened by the federal government.

FRANKFORT — In whirlwind fashion, Senate Republicans pushed forward much of their 2011 legislative agenda Thursday in committee and floor votes with little meaningful resistance from the Democratic minority.

Among the measures approved in committee was a complex switch of the state pension plan to a defined-contribution system, similar to 401(k) accounts common in the private sector, for future state workers. The bill was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee without a required financial analysis.

Committee Chairman Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said the analysis is expected in a few weeks but Republicans deemed it necessary to act on the bill this week.

Sen. Walter Blevins Jr., D-Morehead, objected to the pension measure, Senate Bill 2, noting that a 66-page substitute version of the bill was introduced just minutes before the committee vote.

"I don't know why we have to rush this bill through," he said.

Some Democrats have said the rush of bills in the Senate in this first week of the 2011 General Assembly is calculated to benefit Senate President David Williams' campaign for governor. But Williams and Senate GOP leaders said similar measures have been introduced in previous legislative sessions and should be familiar to lawmakers.

The first week of legislative sessions in odd-numbered years, which last for 30 working days, historically has been set aside for electing legislative leaders and not considering bills.

The full Senate is expected to vote Friday on the pension bill and many other measures that won committee approval Thursday. They then would go to the Democratic-controlled House, which cannot address them until lawmakers return to Frankfort on Feb. 1.

The pension bill would make state workers responsible for saving enough for their retirements. It would not affect current state employees, only future hires, and not school teachers, who have their own retirement system.

The Kentucky Retirement Systems faces more than $30 billion in unfunded liabilities, Thayer said.

"Kentucky can no longer afford to offer its current richer pension system to future employees," he said.

Under the bill, the state would match future employees' retirement contributions up to 5 percent of pay for non-hazardous duty workers and up to 8 percent for hazardous duty workers.

The bill also would kill a controversial law that lets longtime legislators sweeten their public pensions by taking a job elsewhere in state government before retirement, Thayer said.

Thayer's committee also approved three other bills without any Democratic members present. Also approved were:

■ SB 4, named the "Public Officials Accountability Act of 2011."

Among other things, it prohibits a lawmaker or a candidate for the General Assembly from accepting a campaign contribution from lobbyists, changes the date of primary elections from May to August, and requires candidates running for statewide office to file campaign finance reports electronically if their contributions total $25,000.

■ SB 7, which requires more government financial data to be available online.

■ SB 10, which would amend the Kentucky Constitution to say no law could force Kentuckians to participate in health insurance systems, provide abortion services or surrender their firearms. It also would ban laws that prevent posting the Ten Commandments and coal mining.

Earlier Thursday, the full Senate approved a bill that would require pregnant women to have a face-to-face meeting with a doctor or designated health professional at least 24 hours before an abortion.

The Senate voted 32-5 to pass SB 9. The bill has passed the Senate before but not the Democratic-led House.

Five Democratic senators voted against the bill, including Sen. Kathy Stein of Lexington. Stein tried unsuccessfully to attach an amendment that would have outlawed abortion in Kentucky, which she said was the true aim of the bill's supporters.

The bill, which the Senate Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection Committee approved earlier Thursday on a 9-3 vote, also requires that the doctor who is to perform the abortion, or a certified technician, also perform an ultrasound on the woman and show it to her.

A doctor who violated the law would be fined up to $250,000.

In speaking against the bill, Dr. Connie White, a Frankfort obstetrician-gynecologist, said a patient could avert her eyes from an ultrasound but the doctor still would have to describe to her the image.

Derek Selznick, reproductive freedom project director for the state American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill would harm poor women in rural areas who must travel to get an abortion.

Sen. Katie Stine, R-Southgate, disputed that and said the bill is designed to treat each woman as an individual and give them the opportunity to ask doctors questions.

The Senate also approved three other bills and sent them to the House for consideration. They were:

■ SB 12, which allows a school superintendent to select a principal after consulting the school-based council.

■ SB 13, which provides financial incentives to advanced science and math teachers whose students score high on advanced placement exams.

■ SB 8, which consolidates business filings and fee payments at one center in the secretary of state's office.

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