Local legislators mixed about revisiting pension reform bill

While the future of a controversial pension reform bill remains in limbo, the Daily News reached out – with mixed results – to the four local legislators who voted for Senate Bill 151 to ask if they would vote for a new bill with the same provisions.

Two did not return messages seeking comment, one declined to speculate on a vote and one said he probably would vote for such a bill a second time.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled June 20 that SB 151, passed in the waning hours of the last General Assembly, was illegal as it was not given three readings as required by the state constitution.

After the bill was signed by Gov. Matt Bevin, state Attorney General Andy Beshear and other groups filed the successful lawsuit.

The bill would place new teachers into a hybrid retirement plan that mixes a 401(k)-style plan with a defined benefits plan.

Debate about pension reforms that would cut benefits for teachers and other public employees prompted massive protests in Frankfort this spring, led primarily by educators.

Bevin filed a motion Friday asking Shepherd to rule on other issues related to his ruling, which ultimately is expected to be challenged in the state Supreme Court by the governor. Even if that court affirms the ruling, Bevin could still try to get the pension reform passed in an upcoming session.

Four local lawmakers voted for SB 151: Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green; Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green; Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland; and Rep. Jason Petrie, R-Elkton.

Wilson declined to say how he would vote on a new pension bill with the same provisions as SB 151.

“We need to wait on the courts. … At this point, it’s in the court’s hands,” he said.

Meredith said it was a hard question, but if the bill had the exact same provisions as SB 151, then his vote would “likely be yes.”

Meredith said to not do anything about the state’s troubled pension system would be just “digging the hole deeper.”

“Pensions will always be controversial,” he said, but if nothing is done, Kentuckians “in 15 or 20 years would look at us and say why didn’t you do something just to save yourself politically. We knew it would be unpopular and controversial (with) political ramifications, but it does no one any good to leave it alone – to let it continue on the trajectory it’s on. It will only get worse.”

Meredith said of the way SB 151 was passed, tacked onto a wastewater bill and pushed through at the last minute: “I won’t defend the process, but from a policy standpoint, we did as little to impact” people as possible. “We didn’t want to punish or hurt anyone … hopefully cooler heads can prevail” and an even better solution to the pension issue will emerge, he said.

DeCesare, who is not seeking re-election, and Petrie did not return messages seeking comment.

Kim Coomer, president of the Warren County Education Association, said if the legislation does come up for another vote “we’re going to fight the good fight” against what she termed “a terrible piece of legislation (that) will hurt so many people.”

She said she does expect the pension reform effort to resurface in some fashion if SB 151 is struck down by the state Supreme Court.

Some Republican legislators, however, have indicated they have no desire to revisit the contentious issue any time soon.

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, told The Courier-Journal after the court ruling that “I don’t see much inclination out there to open this thing up and deal with it again. … If this decision holds … the defenders of the status quo can declare victory and watch while our pension systems collapse.”

SB 151 passed by a 49-46 margin in the House and 22-15 in the Senate.

Local legislators voting against SB 151 were Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green; Rep. Steve Riley, R-Glasgow; Rep. C.B. Embry, R-Morgantown; and Rep. Wilson Stone, D-Scottsville.

This article provided by NewsEdge.