Politics & Government

Bill would reveal Kentucky legislators’ state pensions, which are secret under current law

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, presided over the Senate in the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, January 5, 2016. Tuesday was the opening day for the 2016 General Assembly as both the House of Representatives and the Senate convened at noon.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, presided over the Senate in the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, January 5, 2016. Tuesday was the opening day for the 2016 General Assembly as both the House of Representatives and the Senate convened at noon. cbertram@herald-leader.com

The public could learn how much a state pension is worth to legislators under a bill unanimously approved Wednesday by a Senate committee.

Senate Bill 45 would require public disclosure of individual benefits for current and former legislators enrolled in the legislative pension system, the judicial pension system, the Kentucky Retirement Systems for state employees or the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System for educators.

Some legislators dramatically inflate their state-subsidized legislative pensions by taking jobs in the executive or judicial branches that pay more than $100,000 a year, using a benefits-enhancement law the General Assembly approved.

Unlike some other states, Kentucky exempts all information about individual public pension benefits from disclosure under the Open Records Act. But there is legitimate interest in knowing what legislators collect in retirement, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill.

“I think we’ll learn that the vast majority of people who retire don’t draw the kind of pensions that people think they do. But there are some select circumstances where people have done things the public would find egregious in terms of spiking benefits,” McDaniel told reporters after the Senate Committee on State and Local Government voted unanimously for his bill.

McDaniel said he expects the full Senate to approve his bill by early next week.

Pension transparency bills in the past have hit a roadblock in the House State Government Committee, where Chairman Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, is an opponent.

“My basic philosophy is, if you’re in public office or if you’re a public employee, then what you’re currently earning as salary should be public information, and it is,” Yonts said Wednesday. “Once you’ve retired, though, what you draw from retirement benefits is nobody else’s business.”

Nearly 350 past and present legislators are enrolled, along with state judges, in the Kentucky Judicial Form Retirement Systems, which guarantees them lifetime pensions and health benefits upon retirement. The legislative pension plan is 85 percent funded, which puts it in far better shape than the primary state employee pension plan at KRS, which is only 17 percent funded and needs many billions of dollars to honor its future commitments.

Also Wednesday, the same Senate committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 10, a proposed constitutional amendment to combine federal and statewide elections to the same even-year ballots, starting in 2024. At present, candidates for governor and other statewide offices run in odd-numbered years immediately preceding a presidential election year.

McDaniel, also the sponsor of SB 10, said it would save money at the county and state level by reducing the number of elections held, and it would increase voter turnout for state offices, because more voters seem to be interested in the presidential races.

Like the pension transparency bill, the elections bill in the past has been blocked in the Democratic-led House. House Democrats and Senate Republicans both suspect that federal races, where Kentuckians usually support Republicans, could swing more state races in favor of the GOP if they share the same ballot.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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