Ky. Voices: Williams, Comer should set example: Reject pension hike

David Adams

Kentuckians not yet aware of our public pension crisis will not be so blissfully ignorant for long.

State legislative leaders have dramatically underfunded public employee pension plans for years, and those plans will most likely run out of money before Gov. Steve Beshear leaves office in 2015.

Frankfort's big spenders and those who keep electing them will get a big shock when hundreds of millions of dollars each year must be diverted from the state's already overburdened social-engineering schemes to payment for the bankrupt — but constitutionally mandated — pension plans.

Beshear and former Senate President David Williams clashed often and loudly over mostly minor issues of style but found much common ground on spending beyond our commonwealth's means during the past four years.

Kentucky managed to increase bonded indebtedness $2.8 billion in Beshear's first term and add billions more in unfunded pension liabilities, in addition to blowing through a staggering $3.7 billion in Obama administration stimulus funding.

And now Beshear has appointed Williams to a circuit judgeship, for which Williams would be eligible for a bigger state pension.

In 2005, Williams and then-House Speaker Jody Richards rammed through the legislature a pension amendment attached to House Bill 299 to allow legislators to reap enormous pension benefits if they padded their terms as lawmakers with even a very short stint elsewhere in state government.

Williams sought to separate himself from this pension grab after the fact by expressing shock that Beshear would use the loophole to benefit himself politically. Williams even launched multiple repeal efforts, which Speaker Greg Stumbo all-too-predictably killed in the House.

This legislative pension issue is a hot one politically. Nearly 20 percent of pre-filed bills for the 2013 General Assembly so far would close this loophole, though none stands much chance of being signed into law. We are going to have to be a little creative to clear this up.

I have an idea.

Judge Williams and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer are the two highest-profile former legislators currently accruing significant pension benefits, thanks to this nasty little provision. They should both immediately file for retirement benefits from the Legislators' Retirement Plan, cutting off their access to the excessive "reciprocity" deal they both voted themselves in 2005.

This is the only way to ensure we don't wind up paying them benefits they both claim now that they don't want.

Kentucky Retirement Systems will send both men letters confirming their retirements from the legislature and saving Kentuckians a tidy sum. More important, this action would set a precedent for future lawmakers tempted to soak up pension millions we can't afford to pay. Personal pension records are private, so Comer and Williams should release proof of their compliance to the public to solidify their statements and set the example for the next former legislator.

Kentucky's fiscal problems are enormous, and there is plenty of blame to go around. Sadly, given the way politics works, the most likely response to this suggestion will be personal attacks against me and those who would join me in calling for this common-sense action.

The only solution to that is for more of us to lose our fear of powerful politicians and remember they work for us. It is not the other way around and never has been. Please share this essay as widely as you can. If we stick together on this easy one, it will be good practice for weathering the much greater storms ahead.

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