FRANKFORT — With only three days left in this year's law-making session, the Democratic House and Republican Senate have yet to forge a compromise on how to fix Kentucky's ailing public pension system.
The chambers also are trying to resolve their differences on several other major bills, including a measure to allow more transparency of special taxing districts and a proposal to make it easier for Kentucky military members overseas to vote.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said late Monday that leaders in the two chambers were "very close" to reaching an agreement on overhauling the public pension system.
"There's not a lot left to be resolved," he said, adding that work on Senate Bill 2 could be done by the end of Tuesday.
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After Tuesday, the legislature is scheduled to meet March 25 and 26 to consider any vetoes by the governor. Lawmakers still could take final action on bills those last two days but would give up their right to override any vetoes by Gov. Steve Beshear.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, was not as optimistic. He said the Senate still refuses to acknowledge that finding a way to pay for pension reforms is critical.
"My speculation is that if we resolve the pension crisis it will be in the final days," Stumbo said. "If the Senate has an adequate and sustainable funding mechanism that they can pass, we could certainly move forward on it as quickly as we can. There's no other way to do it and be responsible about it."
Stumbo said no one from the Senate had offered a funding proposal to him. The governor is expected to call the next meeting with legislative leaders on the issue, and Stumbo said Beshear had asked that leadership keep their calendars open.
"If they want to resolve the pension issue without a special session, then we have to be responsible and address a funding solution and a reform solution," he said. "But they go hand in hand."
Beshear and leaders of the House and Senate met Friday and Sunday to discuss public pensions. All said they hoped to avoid a special session, which could cost taxpayers more than $60,000 a day.
Kentucky's public pension system, which covers nearly 325,000 people, faces more than $30 billion in unfunded liabilities. It has only half the money needed to pay current and future retirees.
The House has proposed a plan to help finance the pension system that relies heavily on proceeds from expanded lottery games and instant racing games at horse racetracks. The Senate has said funding can be resolved in 2014, when lawmakers will create a new two-year state budget.
The Senate's version of SB 2 includes recommendations from a bipartisan task force last year that suggested moving new employees into a hybrid 401(k)-style plan and eliminating cost-of-living increases for retirees. The House plan keeps the traditional defined-benefit structure and allows cost-of-living increases only when there is money to pay for them.
With pension negotiations still stalled Monday, the House and Senate continued working on two other high-priority proposals — Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 1.
The House on Monday night approved its own version of SB 1, pushed by Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, that would allow Kentucky service members overseas to receive absentee ballots electronically.
The Senate's version of the bill said hard copies of the ballots must be returned to county clerks, but the House changed the bill to let ballots be sent back electronically. Opponents worry that electronic ballots could be hacked.
The House vote on SB 1 was 57-42. The Senate is expected to consider the revised measure Tuesday. If the Senate does not agree with the House, the bill could be sent to a conference committee made up of members from both chambers who would try to iron out their differences.
During a lengthy debate on the bill in the House, Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said he was embarrassed that Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, was told to sit down by House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark. Floyd is a military veteran, and Clark told him to sit down because he was discussing other bills in his arguments against SB 1.
Hoover also criticized Grimes. He said that when the bill was in committee last week, Grimes said a vote against it would be a vote against the military.
"What an abomination for a constitutional officer to make this comment," Hoover said. "If we had leadership, we would call her out on it."
A spokeswoman for Grimes said Hoover's description of Grimes' testimony to the committee was inaccurate.
She issued a statement thanking the House for restoring SB 1 to her original proposal.
"I'm hopeful the Senate will concur with this bipartisan measure so that those who risk their lives on the battlefield can have their voices heard at the ballot box," she said.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate agreed Monday to disagree on HB 1, the measure pushed by Auditor Adam Edelen to make special taxing districts more transparent.
The two chambers named members of a conference committee to work out their differences on HB 1. The Senate wants to give fiscal courts and councils veto power over taxes and fees imposed by special districts. The House does not.