FRANKFORT — Republican Gov. Matt Bevin said earlier this week he believes the votes are there in the General Assembly to pass pension reform legislation.
Republicans control both legislative chambers with majorities big enough to pass legislation without support from Democrats, nearly all of whom oppose the pension reform bill.
But at least in its present form, the bill doesn’t seem to have the support of enough House Republicans to pass.
“The sentiment I feel up here in the Capitol Annex for all intents and purposes is that the proposal on the table now just doesn’t have the votes to pass,” Rep. Jill York, R-Grayson, said Thursday.
The plan would move new employees into 401(a) defined contribution plans and limit some benefits. It also calls for the General Assembly to commit to a “level dollar” annual payment to pay down the pension systems’ unfunded liabilities of $40 billion or more. Those large amounts will either require additional revenues or deep cuts to other government programs.
The plan has produced an outcry from teachers and state employees but is backed by such groups as The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Bevin has said he wants to call a special session before the end of the year to pass the legislation but so far has announced no date. Meanwhile, public opposition appears to be growing and that, along with a sexual harassment scandal which led to the resignation of Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, has complicated the political prospects of the bill.
York said her constituents in northeastern Kentucky aren’t on board with the plan.
“The feedback that I’ve gotten in my own district leads me to believe that other plans are going to have to be found for it to be successful,” she said.
On the other end of the state, Rep. Steve Rudy, R-Paducah, said his constituents’ reactions to the draft bill are “mixed — but the ones who are against it are louder.”
Rudy, however, was straightforward about the current bill’s prospects: “The votes (in the House) aren’t there.”
On Monday, however, Bevin told WHAS-AM Radio talk show host Leland Conway that when he, Hoover and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, released a draft of the proposed bill a month ago, the two legislative leaders assured him they had the votes to pass it.
“I’m convinced the votes are still there,” Bevin told Conway.
But Rep. Ken Upchurch, R-Monticello, agrees with York and Rudy that the present plan is in trouble, at least in the House.
House leaders have said they continue to work on changes to the bill to lessen the concerns of state workers, teachers and retirees. Upchurch thinks such changes will be necessary to pass pension reform.
“There definitely has to be some alternate plan — with some of the provisions of the current bill, maybe,” Upchurch said Thursday. “The governor’s plan is a good starting point, but there are issues that, I think, we have to address before we can move forward.”
But Upchurch said lawmakers must do something, and he thinks some version of pension reform will ultimately pass.
“We have to do something,” Upchurch said. “Yeah, I think at some point in time we will do something on pension reform.”
Some Republicans think time is running out for a special session and think it might be better to wait for the regular 2018 General Assembly which convenes in January.
“I personally think we’re better off addressing it in the regular session, along with tax reform,” said Rep. Tommy Turner, R-Somerset. “There are just so many issues out there right now. People don’t really know what’s in (the bill).”
Bevin has also called for reforming the state’s antiquated tax code, but he has said he wants to tackle pension reform first to determine how big the problems of unfunded liabilities are.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.