Court ruling on pensions a win for democracy

Protesters at the state Capitol last fall rallied against proposed pension reforms and education cuts.
Protesters at the state Capitol last fall rallied against proposed pension reforms and education cuts. Herald-Leader file photo

The Kentucky Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling is not only a victory for teachers and other state workers facing pension-benefit cuts, it is a reaffirmation of every citizen’s right to know and participate in lawmaking.

In a decision written by Justice Daniel Venters of Somerset, the court found that Republican legislative leaders did not give the pension bill the constitutionally required three public readings in the Senate and House before passing it last March.

Gov. Matt Bevin, who is rightly concerned about eliminating the state’s $37.9 billion pension shortfall, blasted the ruling as “an unprecedented power grab by activist judges.” He called the requirement “an arbitrary administrative procedure.”

But the court did not tell the governor or legislature how to change pension laws, only that the subterfuge used to pass the reform violated the law.

Written in secret, the law was passed on the 57th day of the 60-day session. Legislative leaders gutted a bill “relating to the local provision of wastewater services” and replaced its contents with 291 pages of changes to pension laws; then, within a few hours, they voted on and approved the measure in both chambers.

Republican lawmakers argued that it was the way business had been done when the governorship and legislature were under Democratic control, They blamed partisan politics, since Attorney General Steve Beshear, who brought the lawsuit — along with the Kentucky Education Association and the Kentucky State Fraternal Order of Police — is running for governor.

But past 11-th hour legislation, however unseemly, did not attract weeks of protests from tens of thousands of teachers and others, often filling the Capitol. So no one can reasonably argue that few people would have been interested in what Bevin calls “an arbitrary administrative procedure.”

As for Beshear, he is a politician, as are Bevin and other GOP leaders. In this case the Supreme Court said he was right to sue.

Now, Bevin and the legislature still need a plan to address the worst-funded pension system in the nation.

After a decade of underfunding, the legislature did commit this year to contributing the state’s required annual contribution. Pension changes agreed to in 2014 are resulting in some improvements. More aggressive tax reforms and closing tax exemptions could bring in more revenue.

Some GOP lawmakers are defiant, proposing to just pass the same law when the session begins next month. That’s like waving a red flag at a bull, especially when the gubernatorial race likely will make the issue more toxic. And it does not help to have Majority Leader Damon Thayer threaten to “rein in” judges in retaliation, looking at the judicial branch of government and how they are elected.

Lawmakers instead should embrace this chance for a do-over that brings all stakeholders to the table to build consensus, iron out details and come up with solutions. That’s the way the legislature exerts its power, rather than by just hoping people don’t notice what’s being done to them.