Larry Keeling: Political musical chairs that Williams once denounced could leave with a big pension prize

Larry Dale Keeling
Larry Dale Keeling

FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear recently told reporters he "will consider every candidate put forward by the nominating committee" when he names a new circuit judge for Clinton, Cumberland and Monroe counties.

On Thursday, the office of Senate President David Williams, who hails from Cumberland County, issued a statement saying, "If there is an appointment offer, Sen(ator) Williams will consider it."

Since this isn't junior high and it isn't the first political dance for either of these guys, this coy willingness to "consider" their options has Capitol hallway chatter all atwitter about these erstwhile bitter political rivals going to a judicial prom together in the near future — assuming they can find an intermediary to carry the mash notes back and forth.

Given the history between the two, I wouldn't count on one of them picking up the phone, calling the other and saying, "Hey, you wanna boogie?" More likely, it would come out, "Hey, you wanna rumble?" Because kissing and making up (figuratively, of course) may be OK from afar. But up close and personal? Not sure it happens.

Up close and personal might bring back some memories. Memories such as Williams' 2009 comment after Democrat Robin Webb won a special election to fill the Senate seat vacated when Beshear appointed former Sen. Charlie Borders, a Republican, to a $117,000-a-year position on the Public Service Commission. "(Beshear) has no idea as far as the political atmosphere here — he's poisoning it," Williams said.

Later in 2009, after Beshear picked former Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly to fill a vacant circuit judgeship at an annual salary of $124,620 in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to pick up another Senate seat for Democrats, Williams said, "This is just another play in the governor's full-court press to enable gambling interests to influence elections — in what was supposed to be a non-election year — and to help him avoid fulfilling his campaign promise to let the people decide whether there should be an expansion of gambling."

By accepting the jobs Beshear offered, Borders and Kelly greatly improved their future retirement benefits due to a 2005 change in the legislative pension plan, a change that originated in the Williams-led Senate. It allows lawmakers to count all years of government service toward their legislative pensions and to base those pensions on the average of their highest salary years regardless of where the salary was earned.

In addition to Borders and Kelly, several other former and current lawmakers of both parties have benefited or will benefit from the 2005 change. Some have been able to double their pension benefits by serving as few as three years in lucrative positions elsewhere in government. Their ability to do so has generated considerable public criticism, notably among members of the Tea Party movement. As a result, some of the same Senate Republicans on whose watch it originated subsequently began to push for repeal of this pension option. They include Williams, who, in a 2010 debate, said legislation to eliminate the perk was needed because Beshear had "abused" it.

With two opponents — including one backed by the Tea Party — attacking him on the issue in the 2011 Republican gubernatorial primary, Williams promised not to take advantage of the perk if elected governor. An Associated Press story from April 2011 quoted Williams' campaign manager Scott Jennings on the subject: "While Steve Beshear and his Democratic allies in the Senate and House refuse to join him in a call for closing this loophole, David will make the promise that if elected governor he will not accept any increase in his pension. If he is forced by statute to accept the higher pension, he will donate the entirety of the increase to charity."

Jennings was also quoted as saying, "It wasn't until Steve Beshear began appointing legislators to executive branch positions that anyone realized it was possible to abuse the system in this way."

Let's not dwell on the facts that lawmakers were taking advantage of this loophole years before Beshear tried to flip the Senate with it, that lawmakers knew at the time they enacted it exactly what it did and how they could exploit it and that none should have known this better than the Senate Republicans who crafted it.

Let's just sit back for a moment and feel all the indignation Williams' expressed when Beshear made the Borders and Kelly appointments. Let's sit back for another moment and feel all the selflessness embodied in his promise not to accept a pension pumped up by the higher salary he would have earned if he had been elected governor.

Then, let's ask ourselves: Can this same guy — this indignant, selfless guy — now take the money and run if Beshear offers him a judicial appointment and the hefty pension increase that comes with it?

Even though we're told there are no dumb questions, we may have just found one.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.