A prominent Democratic lawmaker said Monday that Kentucky's governor needs more legislative support than Republicans think he does in order to pass his pension-relief proposal in a special legislative session, and she says the vote-count issue could land the matter in court.
State Rep. Joni Jenkins and other House Democratic leaders insist at least 60 votes are needed in the 100-member chamber to pass the proposal because of state constitutional requirements in odd-numbered years for appropriations. Republicans contend only 51 votes are needed to pass the pension measure. Republicans hold a 61-39 advantage over Democrats in the House.
Asked Monday if she thinks Gov. Matt Bevin has enough votes to pass his bill, Jenkins replied: "It depends on what number it takes to pass that bill. I'm hearing they've got 51 votes. Can you pass an appropriation bill in 2019 with 51 votes? That may be something the courts will decide."
Jenkins warned that such questions could risk putting county health departments, rape crisis centers and many other quasi-governmental agencies "in limbo" as state leaders try to cushion them from rising pension costs.
Bevin's team is confident it has lined up sufficient support to pass the measure "in a constitutional manner," Bevin's deputy chief of staff, Bryan Sunderland, told reporters.
Sunderland didn't say how much support Bevin's proposal has in the GOP-led House or when Bevin might call lawmakers back into session to take up his measure, which aims to provide relief for regional universities and quasi-public agencies that face surging pension costs.
Jenkins is a member of the House Democratic leadership team as minority whip. Sunderland and Jenkins spoke separately to reporters after the Public Pension Oversight Board met.
The governor's proposal would replace a bill that Bevin vetoed in April after the GOP-dominated legislature had ended its regulator session.
Bevin's proposal allows the agencies to stay with the Kentucky Retirement Systems at full cost; leave the retirement system by paying a lump sum equal to future projected benefits payments; or buy their way out in installment payments over decades. It extends a freeze on pension costs for another year for the regional universities and quasi-public agencies.
Unless action is taken, the affected agencies face ballooning pension costs starting July 1. State leaders worry that inaction would strain the quasi-public agencies and lead to some bankruptcies, elimination of staff and loss of critical services for Kentuckians.
But once July arrives, there would still be time to cushion them from soaring pension costs, Sunderland said. While the agencies would be charged higher rates starting July 1, the bill wouldn't come due until August, he said.
"Not until after Aug. 10 would they be considered delinquent," he said. "It gives some time."
Another complication for Bevin has been trying to schedule a special session amid lawmakers' long-planned vacations and other commitments.
"A lot of people are going a lot of places and doing a lot of things," Sunderland said.
Bevin's proposal tries to strike a balance aimed at maintaining vital services, protecting employees' pensions and making sure the pension system is receiving adequate support, Sunderland told the pension oversight board.
He stressed that Bevin agreed to push back the deadline for affected agencies to decide until next April 30, after the 2020 legislative session concludes. That would give lawmakers time to make changes to deal with any issues that might come up, he said.
Democratic lawmakers signaled they have their own ideas about how to resolve the issue. Jenkins said those Democratic alternatives should be considered in a special session.
Jenkins told reporters that she's concerned Bevin's measure might violate the "inviolable contract": language within state law that guarantees employees get the benefits promised when they were hired. Affected employees upset that their employers chose to leave the retirement system could have legal standing to sue if it cleared the legislature, she said.
"I have not heard of an entity that says 'we're going to file a lawsuit,'" Jenkins said. "I think it's just a distinct possibility."