Larry Keeling: Hallelujah, I was wrong

Herald-Leader columnistApril 7, 2013 

Larry Dale Keeling

FRANKFORT — Confession first:

I was wrong. I was too pessimistic. I let the old "past is prologue" thing convince me the 2013 General Assembly regular session would end the same way many of the past dozen or so regular sessions ended — with unfinished work on a major issue or two spilling over into a special session.

This year, I figured Kentucky lawmakers would need legislative overtime to do anything about the state's troubled public pension plans. But danged if they didn't pass some pension stuff in regulation time.

Notice I didn't say pension "reform," because what they did pass is a bit light on the only reform that really matters. Money. As in fully funding — on a year in, year out basis — the state's share of the actuarially required contribution to the pension plans.

As part of their pension package, lawmakers tinkered with the tax code enough to generate an estimated $95 million or so in new revenue, which supposedly will allow the state to fully fund the ARC beginning with the next budget cycle.

However, this extra cash isn't earmarked as a dedicated revenue stream for the pension plans. So, nothing hinders future General Assemblies from reverting to the bad habit repeated often during the past couple of decades as lawmakers glommed onto money that should have been funding the ARC and used it to plug other budget holes. This perennial underfunding is one of the bigger reasons for the pension plans' financial woes.

Even if all the new money had been earmarked for pensions, some of the $95 million bottom line relies on assumptions, such as the state doing a better job of collecting taxes. You know, the kind of wishful thinking that keeps my little buddy, the Efficiency Fairy, working overtime lighting smudge pots and polishing reflective surfaces.

But that's OK. He's had lots of practice through the years. Besides, I don't want to quibble too much because I can't recall the last perfect piece of legislation, if any, enacted by the General Assembly. And doing something constructive, even if imperfect, about a session's biggest issue in regulation time is far superior to the alternative we've witnessed too often in the recent past.

Doing it with civility is priceless.

A change at the top in the Republican-controlled Senate brought civility back to a process that had seen precious little of it over the past dozen years. Senate President Robert Stivers deserved all the praise he received from Gov. Steve Beshear and others. His style of leadership and his interaction with Beshear, the Democratic leaders of the House and Democrats in his own chamber represented a sea change from the days of former President David Williams.

But give some credit as well to the entire Senate Republican caucus. "If there has been a change, it's because the body of the whole, the Senate, has made it," Stivers said at the end of the session. "No one person can take credit for that."

I believe him. I also believe the "body of the whole" can't make a change in the Senate unless the majority caucus wants to go there. So, I believe the civility Stivers and other Senate Republican leaders displayed during this General Assembly reflects the wishes of a Republican caucus eager to have the histrionic brinkmanship and gridlock-induced special sessions of the past come to an end.

Of course, I could be wrong, just as I was wrong about pension legislation not getting done in the regular session. But whoever deserves the credit, the return of civility made the 2013 General Assembly one of the more productive 30-day, odd-year sessions since they began in 2001.

And with no special session in sight, political junkies can turn their full attention to the question of which Kentucky Democrat will step forward to fill the void left when actress Ashley Judd opted out of the 2014 U.S. Senate race. Any takers?

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