FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) – Kentucky’s Senate took a cautious step back on reforming the state’s ailing pension system, maybe hearing the echoes of more than 100 protesting teachers as they came into session Friday morning.
At the end of the day, the Senate made the motion to recommit Senate Bill 1 to the State and Local Government Committee for another long look.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, had said on Thursday he had enough votes to pass the bill but it never made it that far in a dramatic day.
“We’ve continuously worked to modify and come up with a bill that would be supported within our caucus,” Stivers said. “Sometimes people felt comfortable with it, sometimes they did not. After long discussions last night, this morning and this afternoon, individuals wanted more time to consider the position we were in.”
More than 100 protesting teachers – many carrying signs - were at the foot of the steps to the Senate and at times their chanting and booing made it difficult to hear inside the chamber. Stivers, who asked that the doors be closed as much as possible because of the noise, said their presence did not play a role in the decision.
“I do not think they influenced anything that happened today,” he said.
The Senate gaveled in at 9 a.m. and took care of routine business and then recessed for two hours, the first hint that everyone wasn’t comfortable with the bill as the protesting teachers continued to chant from outside. The boos and jeers from teachers erupted into cheers when it was announced there would be no vote on Friday.
The Senators also had to take into consideration that the House may not have the votes to pass it despite assurances from House Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne that they did. Senators wouldn’t want to vote for a controversial bill and then see it killed in the House.
“We’ll look at it and have more discussions with individuals,” said Stivers, who is still convinced he has the votes to pass the bill. “It could pass, but it would be difficult, based on the events that have happened in the last little bit.”
Stivers didn’t elaborate nor give a timeline for future consideration but did stress the need for action.
“If we do not get some kind of reforms in place, what you’re seeing in the proposed budget will go up somewhere between another $250 million to $500 million over the next three or four years. That’s one thing people need to understand.”
The current budget proposal earmarks $3 billion, which is 15 percent of the proposed General Fund expenditures.
Stivers also explained why his confidence Thursday that they had the votes to pass the measure faded on Friday.
“On issues like this, it becomes a very fluid situation. We had gone through a count, felt we were right there at the edge and thought we had the votes to go,” he said. “Things happen. They think they want more time, something needs to be changed. So, we defer to some of our members’ judgements, wishes, wants and desires.”
When asked if the bill was dead, Stivers replied simply, “No.”
There is no word yet on when the Senate State and Local Government Committee will take up the bill again. Its next scheduled meeting is Wednesday but the agenda has not yet been set.
Kentucky’s public pension plans have an unfunded liability of at least $41 billion, one of the worst in the nation.
State officials say Senate Bill 1 would save taxpayers about $3.2 billion over the next 20 years and stabilize the struggling pension system. But most of that savings would come from temporary cuts to the annual cost-of-living raises for retired teachers, who are not eligible to receive Social Security benefits. The raises would be restored once the system is 90 percent funded. Currently, the system is 56 percent funded.
Attorney General Andy Beshear continues to maintain the bill in its current state violates the inviolable contract entered into with employees, state law and the Kentucky Constitution.
“Senate Bill 1 is blatantly unlawful under Kentucky law,” Beshear said on Thursday. “And any challenge in court, the commonwealth is going to lose.”
When asked if his office would sue if the current bill is enacted, Beshear said: “If they violate the inviolable contract, and I believe other suits that are filed are insufficient, then yes, I will very strongly consider that.”