Tom Eblen

Kentucky pension overhaul has failed twice. Republicans should try a new approach.

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: people will usually do the right thing after they have tried everything else. Kentuckians can only hope that will be the case with the General Assembly’s Republican majority.

Republicans have failed twice, in spectacular fashion, to reshape Kentucky’s public pension system based on ideology rather than facts, while refusing to listen to anyone who disagreed with their approach.

The state Supreme Court unanimously overturned their sneaky first attempt. Then, Gov. Matt Bevin led them down the blind alley of a special session that collapsed within 24 hours because there was no plan upon which Republicans could agree — never mind Democrats.

As House Speaker-elect David Osborne adjourned the special session Tuesday night, he vowed to try again. The 2019 regular session begins Jan. 8.

Here’s an idea. It’s an old-fashioned, idealistic way of governing, but it actually works. Assemble the best available facts from all reputable sources. Get input from a variety of experts. Involve stakeholders, citizens and members of the minority party. Openly debate all the pros and cons.

If they do all that, Republican lawmakers may come up with legislation that actually solves Kentucky’s pension problems in ways most people will support.

Bevin keeps hysterically claiming that Kentucky is on the brink of collapse because of unfunded pension liabilities approaching $43 billion. But facts show his proposed solutions would do little to fix that, while making the retirements of teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public employees less secure.

Inevitably, revenue-raising tax reform will be needed to solve pension problems that were, in large part, caused by Kentucky’s antiquated tax system. Governors and lawmakers of both parties, who were afraid to raise taxes, put too little money in pensions amid economic downturns so they could fund other areas of state government.

Where should tax reform begin next year? Eliminate some of the estimated $13 billion in special-interest tax loopholes that don’t have a big payoff for the overall economy or serve as an important offset to wealth inequality.

Earlier this year, legislative leaders created the Task Force on Tax Expenditures in the Legislative Research Commission to study this issue and make recommendations. It issued a draft report this month with some good suggestions. The report should be a road map for action.

But more money for pensions isn’t the only problem, or answer. Many funds need more transparency to prevent corruption and improve accountability. Pension boards need more expertise and training to invest wisely.

The value of failure is learning. Republican lawmakers should have learned some valuable lessons over the past year, and especially during the past week.

Having watched Democrats arrogantly abuse power off and on for decades, Republicans tried to do the same thing. But as the pension fiasco shows, that doesn’t work well for long when big problems and huge amounts of money are involved.

Republicans also should have learned not to let themselves get trapped under the governor’s thumb. It took Democrats decades to learn the value of legislative independence — and find the courage to exercise it.

Bevin claims to have all the answers for everything, and he attacks anyone who disagrees with or challenges him. His arrogance has helped make him one of the nation’s least popular governors. And after his special session debacle, he may now be the politically weakest Kentucky governor in nearly a century.

Bevin impulsively ordered legislators to Frankfort against their will with four hours’ notice a week before Christmas. Yet he hadn’t laid the groundwork, didn’t have the votes and later admitted he hadn’t even read the bills he wanted them to pass.

You have to wonder which of the conservative “think tanks” or business lobby groups that call the shots for Republicans actually wrote the governor’s bills. Regardless, GOP leaders didn’t like them and went with pretty much the same plan the Supreme Court said they had passed unconstitutionally last spring. In the end, though, Republicans couldn’t agree on either approach.

Christmas is a season of hope. We should hope that a different approach to governing will be on Republican lawmakers’ lists of New Year’s resolutions.

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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