Pension Battle Reaches Kentucky Supreme Court

Sep 20, 2018

The fate of Kentucky’s divisive pension reform bill rests in the hands of the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments Thursday on its constitutionality. The matter comes freighted with politics, as it pits two gubernatorial candidates against one another on a highly-charged issue that could play a role in upcoming elections. 

At the heart of Thursday's hearing were questions about the rapid approval of Senate Bill 151, a wastewater measure turned pension reform package that summoned thousands of protesters to the Capitol grounds earlier this year. 

The bill originally passed the Senate as a sewer measure before receiving two (out of three) readings in the House. But lawmakers then emptied out the wastewater treatment language and swapped in a 291-page pension bill before sending it through both chambers. At issue: whether that maneuver squares with the state Constitution.

In a broadcast of the hearing by KET, Beshear argued it did not – leaving lawmakers and the public in the dark.

"Then there was no way they knew the contents of what they were voting on," the attorney general told the court. "In both chambers, this bill passed in less than six hours after it was completely gutted and changed." 

But Gov. Matt Bevin’s general counsel, Steve Pitt, countered that the General Assembly acted within the bounds of its authority in passing what he characterized as a light version of Senate Bill 1, an earlier version which had already been debated. 

"We have a section of the Constiution that says that the House and the Senate shall make their own rules. They make rule 60, that says a committee substitute shall be considered as the original bill," he argued. "That's the decision that they've made and that's what this court, in my opinion, has to honor." 

Pitt also argued a said in favor of Beshear would invalidate other major bills, including landmark anti-heroin legilsation and the Kentucky Education Reform Act, passed in a similar manner.

"That is the cloud that the circuit court and the attorney general have sown here and we will have a terrible whirlwind to reap if court affirms the circuit," he said, refercing Franklin Circuit Judge Philip Shepherd's ruling striking down the pension reform law. 

Those warnings – what Beshear dubbed a "parade of horribles" – have not come to pass in other cases dealing with the constitutionality of state laws. 

"These arguments, which are made every time a bill is challenged on constitutional grounds, that parade of horribles never happens," he responded. 

Both Beshear and Republican Governor Matt Bevin have announced they will be running for governor in 2019, with the former placing the pension bill front and center in his campaign. Beshear's running mate is Jacqueline Coleman, a former teacher and current high school principal. 

The Lexington Herald-Leader reports a ruling in the pension case isn’t expected until after the November elections.