Kentucky House Democrats disputed Monday the Bevin administration’s claim that it has enough votes to pass a pension-relief bill in a special legislative session.
Bryan Sunderland, Gov. Matt Bevin’s legislative director and deputy chief of staff, said last week that enough votes are in the state House and Senate to pass the bill to ease skyrocketing pensions costs for regional universities and 118 quasi-government agencies, such as mental health centers, public health departments and libraries.
Sunderland declined to say how many votes the administration has secured but said he believes at least 51 are needed in the 100-member House, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 61 to 39.
House Minority Whip Joni Jenkins, D-Louisville, said Wednesday that she thinks the bill requires a super majority — or 60 votes — in the House to win passage. Her comments came after Sunderland and state budget director John Chilton presented the bill to the Public Pension Oversight Board and before House Democrats met to discuss the bill.
Jenkins said her interpretation of constitutional requirements is that any bill raising or spending money in odd-numbered years require 60 votes in the House.
If the bill is passed in a special session this year without a super majority vote, Jenkins said, “we run the risk of somebody filing a lawsuit and everything stops at that point.”
“That is very dangerous for our quasi-governmental, our domestic violence and rape crisis centers, mental health and health departments that could be held in limbo because we pass a bill that doesn’t conform with the Constitution,” she said.
Jenkins said she doesn’t know if any House Democrat would file a lawsuit but said it could happen with a state employee affected by the bill.
Rep. Joe Graviss, D-Versailles, said he noted that an earlier version of the bill listed it as an “appropriations” measure but that wording did not appear on the latest bill draft lawmakers received Monday.
Sunderland repeated Monday that he is “confident we have the ability to pass this bill in the House and Senate.”
He also said the special session will not be held before the beginning of the new fiscal year that starts July 1.
He said regional universities and the other agencies will receive bills in July based on higher pension payments that take effect July 1, but those bills will not become delinquent until Aug. 10.
“If we get done before that deadline, we will be all right,” he said.
Only the governor can call a special session and its agenda. Sunderland said vacations and legislative conferences are making it difficult to find a suitable time for the session.
It would be difficult to hold a special session next week since it contains the Fourth of July holiday. The Southern Legislative Conference that attracts several Kentucky lawmakers is July 13-17 in New Orleans. The National Conference of State Legislatures meets Aug. 5-8 in Nashville.
Bevin’s plan would replace a bill the Republican governor vetoed in April after the GOP-led legislature had ended its regular session.
Concern has been expressed that no legislative action would lead to bankruptcies, elimination of staff and loss of critical services.
Bevin’s plan gives the agencies options: stay with the Kentucky Retirement Systems at full cost; leave the retirement system by paying a lump sum equal to future projected benefits payments; or buy their way out in installment payments over 30 years. It continues a freeze on pension costs for another year.
Some legislators want to make sure employees of the affected groups keep the option to retain their current benefits if they have been in the state plan since 2013.