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Republican Senate Leader Says Pension Veto 'A Big Mistake'

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Gov. Matt Bevin's veto of a far-reaching pension bill was a "big mistake," and there are no guarantees lawmakers will resolve the issue in a special session, the Kentucky Senate's majority leader said Thursday.

Bevin intends to call lawmakers back to the state Capitol before July 1 to pass another version. Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said it's up to Bevin, a fellow conservative Republican, to craft a new pension bill, line up legislative support and commit to signing it.

"I think it was a big mistake for the governor to veto the bill," Thayer said in a phone interview.

The stricken measure was aimed at giving pension relief to some state-funded agencies struggling with ballooning retirement payments. Because it passed shortly before lawmakers ended this year's regular session in late March, they can't try to override Bevin's veto.

As for the governor's remarks Wednesday that a new bill could clear the GOP-dominated legislature in one-day special session, Thayer said flatly: "We're not going to do that."

"The only one-day session we'll have is if we come in and adjourn sine die because there's no agreement," the senator said. "But we are not going to pass a bill like this in one day."

A Bevin spokesman did not immediately respond to an email seeking reaction to Thayer's comments.

Fallout from Bevin's surprise veto on Tuesday has exposed strains between the governor and some top Republican lawmakers.

On Wednesday, the governor and Senate President Robert Stivers had a tense exchange through separate statements about the veto. Thayer, who considers himself one of Bevin's closest legislative allies, also spared no punches in his criticism on Thursday.

"Forty-eight hours ago, I was feeling pretty good about where we are in terms of the policies that we passed" during the recently ended legislative session, Thayer said. "And now this really tarnishes the entire session with his ill-conceived veto."

Thayer added: "I don't understand why he wants to try to make enemies of his natural allies in the legislature."

The vetoed measure was intended to give regional universities, county health departments and many other agencies relief from a spike in pension costs they face on July 1.

"And now we're back to square one," Thayer said. "And there's no guarantee we can get something done in a special session."

Bevin has had a turbulent time in trying to revamp the state's strapped pension systems. In 2018, he called lawmakers back for a special session to vote on a pension bill that had been struck down by the state Supreme Court. Lawmakers adjourned without passing any bills. Taxpayers were left with a bill of about $120,000 for the two-day session.

Asked if the next special session could end the same way, Thayer replied: "I've seen this movie before, and the ending is not good."

Bevin said Wednesday that the vetoed bill needs fine-tuning to fix provisions that violate the "inviolable contract": language in state law that guarantees employees get the benefits promised when they were hired.

"We're going to fix it," he told reporters. "I'm not asking people to rejigger the entire thing. I'm asking them, 'Let's just tighten it up.'"

Thayer said the bill would not have skirted those guarantees.

Bevin's veto came as campaigning intensifies in this year's governor's race in Kentucky. Bevin is seeking another four-year term.

Asked about the ramifications for Bevin, Thayer said: "In the short term, I can't see how it's good for him politically. In the long term, it depends on whether we're able to come up with a fix."

Bevin's GOP challengers are state Rep. Robert Goforth, William Woods and Ike Lawrence. On the Democratic side, candidates for governor include Attorney General Andy Beshear, former state Auditor Adam Edelen, state House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins and frequent candidate Geoff Young. Kentucky's primary election is May 21.

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