Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin still lacks enough votes to push his pension-relief bill through the state House, even with the changes he made to his proposal, House leaders said Thursday.
They said the tweaks to the bill didn't deal with the main sticking point for some lawmakers still withholding support for the governor's plan — ensuring that certain employees in the affected agencies have the option to keep their current benefits.
"We have offered proposed changes that we believe would give him sufficient votes to pass the measure," House Speaker David Osborne said in a statement.
The Republican governor has spent weeks trying to garner enough support to bring lawmakers back for a special legislative session to take up his measure. His plan would replace a measure the governor vetoed in April after the GOP-led legislature had ended its regular session.
Bevin's proposal aims to provide relief for regional universities as well as county health departments, rape crisis centers and many other quasi-governmental agencies that face surging pension costs. On Wednesday, Bevin outlined four changes to his plan.
House Majority Floor Leader John "Bam" Carney said Thursday that "the vote count probably didn't move" as a result of those changes. It might have shored up support from some House members already leaning in favor of the measure, he said in an interview.
"But as far as getting him over the top, I don't think it's done that," Carney said.
The measure appears to remain "a couple of votes short" in the House, he said.
Another complication for the governor is trying to schedule a potential special session amid lawmakers' long-planned vacations. The vote count is fluid, depending on which lawmakers would be absent in certain weeks because of vacations, Carney said.
"That really is a part of the equation right now," Carney said. "It's literally that close in terms of the votes."
Unless action is taken, the regional universities and quasi-public agencies face ballooning pension costs on 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.
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 30 years. It extends a freeze on pension costs for another year for the regional universities and quasi-public agencies.
The main concern is ensuring that employees of the affected groups are given the option to retain their current benefits if they have been in the state plan since 2013, top House leaders said. Osborne referred to those concerns as "very real and very well-founded."
Rep. Robert Goforth, who received 39% of the vote in challenging Bevin in last month's GOP gubernatorial primary, said the vetoed pension bill put some employees "in a very vulnerable position, and I think this current proposal (from the governor) continues to do so."
Goforth advocated freezing pension costs for regional universities and quasi-public agencies into next year, giving lawmakers time to "fix it right" in the 2020 legislative session.
He noted that the governor already has agreed to push back the deadline for the agencies to decide whether to stay with the Kentucky Retirement Systems until next April 30, after the conclusion of the 2020 legislative session.
"So if that's the case, then why are we even rushing to try to push a piece of legislation that people aren't comfortable with right now?" he said.
House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins said the governor's changes to the pension proposal didn't win over any of his fellow House Democrats.
Adkins also urged Bevin to agree to a freeze in the pension costs for the affected universities and quasi-public agencies, allowing lawmakers to consider a pension proposal next year.
"When you don't have the votes, you don't have the votes," Adkins said.
Bevin has said he opposes merely freezing those pension contribution rates, saying: "The days of 'kicking the pension can down the road' are over."