Tom Eblen

First a ‘sewer’ bill, now a Christmas crisis. Why can’t GOP majority govern honestly?

Matt Bevin calls a surprise special legislative session Monday night to handle pensions

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin announced Monday afternoon that he will call a special legislative session to deal with Kentucky's struggling pension systems.
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Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin announced Monday afternoon that he will call a special legislative session to deal with Kentucky's struggling pension systems.

For the second time in a year, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and his party’s leaders in the General Assembly have thrown Kentucky into chaos by trying to quickly pass laws cutting pension benefits for public employees and retirees.

Four days after the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously threw out their first attempt — the infamous Sewer Bill — they were at it again.

On Monday afternoon, Bevin called a special legislative session with only four hours’ notice, blindsiding the public, Democratic lawmakers and the 365,000 teachers, police officers, firefighters, government employees and retirees who will be affected.

Seven hours after Bevin’s surprise call, GOP leaders introduced two bills — a total of 259 pages that would have sweeping, long-term effects on Kentucky. They waived the three-day posting rule and provided no actuarial analysis. Their goal: turn some version of this into law by Friday.

We’ve gone from the Sewer Bill to the Christmas Crisis. Happy Holidays, y’all.

A group gathers inside the Kentucky Capitol to sing Christmas carols with a twist in protest of Gov. Matt Bevin's surprise legislative session on pensions.

As the political drama plays out in Frankfort, step back and ask yourself this question: If Republicans control the governor’s office and both legislative chambers, why can’t they follow normal rules and procedures for enacting laws?

Or this question: If the next regular legislative session is scheduled to begin Jan. 8, why do lawmakers need to spend an extra $65,500 a day to hold a special session a week before Christmas?

In other words, why can’t Republicans govern openly and honestly? Why must they act sneaky and underhanded? The reason is obvious: Their goals and objectives cannot withstand detailed public scrutiny.

Yes, some of Kentucky’s public pension funds are among the nation’s most underfunded — and some are not. Despite the hysteria Bevin has been trying to whip up around the pension issue, this is not an emergency that demands a quick fix but a complex set of problems that need thoughtful solutions.

Kentucky Attorney General (and Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Andy Beshear celebrates the Supreme Court overturning a law on pension changes. He and two other groups filed suit after the law was passed.

Bevin and his supporters keep pushing this narrative: Democrats spent decades creating an unsustainable pension system but didn’t fund it. Bevin is the first person to try to solve this problem, which is now a crisis, and his solutions are the only solutions.

That’s baloney. “Claims of looming insolvency are patently false,” said Jason Bailey of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. The group says most of the changes proposed by Republicans would do more harm than good.

Here’s the reality: Kentucky’s pension system was in great shape until the early 2000s, then back-to-back recessions prompted governors and legislators of both parties to shortchange pension contributions because they didn’t want to raise taxes to fund state government. Making matters worse, some pension funds lack transparency and have been mismanaged, magnifying the damage done by underfunding, economic downturns and cuts in state workers.

Previous governors and legislators enacted bipartisan pension reform in 2003, 2008, 2010 and 2013 that included benefit cuts and less generous retirement packages for many state workers. Since 2015, most of the underfunding has stopped, thanks in part to Bevin. While the pension system still needs more transparency to reduce mismanagement, recent figures show funds are recovering.

This fight may seem esoteric to the average Kentucky taxpayer, but the stakes are very high. Cutting pension benefits and retirement security not only hurts workers and retirees; it hurts the economies of communities across the state where those workers and retirees live and spend money. Less-attractive pensions also hurt the ability of state and local governments and public schools to hire and retain good people.

Thousands of Kentucky teachers stormed the state Capitol April 2 to protest pension benefit cuts, oppose charter schools and advocate for better education funding.

But to understand the dynamic here, you must understand something else: The movement to take traditional, secure pensions away from public employees isn’t just a Kentucky thing. It has been happening all over the country, and big-money special interests are behind it. These special interests put a lot of money into Republican politics, and they want returns on their investment.

That doesn’t mean more changes in public pension benefits aren’t needed now and won’t be needed in the future. But any changes should be made based on facts and careful analysis with the participation of all stakeholders. They should not be cooked up in secret and rushed into law with political shenanigans because of the ideology and scare tactics of an ambitious governor.

Republicans should flush the Sewer Bill, adjourn the Christmas Crisis and come back to work in January ready to act like public servants instead of partisan hacks.

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Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.

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