Kentucky legislature forms bipartisan pension working group

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — After a tumultuous year of failed attempts to change one of the country's worst-funded public pension systems, Kentucky's Republican-controlled legislature is hitting the reset button.

Lawmakers on Friday announced a bipartisan "pension working group" to review the pension systems structure, costs, benefits and funding with a goal of coming up with a proposal that can pass the legislature with bipartisan support.

Republicans introduced a massive pension overhaul proposal heading into last year's legislative session. But talks were complicated by a sexual harassment scandal in the House of Representatives that ended with former Speaker Jeff Hoover resigning from his leadership post. Republicans were still able to force through a pension bill with no Democratic votes. But it prompted protests from thousands of teachers who closed schools in more than 30 districts across the state.

Last month, the state Supreme Court struck that law down on procedural grounds. The year ended when Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called the legislature back in session to pass a version of the bill again, but lawmakers could not reach an agreement and adjourned.

"Last year the intensity level, the rhetoric level got to such a fever pitch that I think it was impossible for anybody to hear over that," GOP House Speaker David Osborne said. "I think it's important that we are able to kind of hit a reset button on that and proceed in a responsible manner to inform, to educate and to try to build some consensus."

The 14-member working group consists of 10 Republicans and four Democrats. It includes some of the Senate's top leadership, including GOP Senate President Robert Stivers and Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey. But none of the House Republican leadership team is on the panel. Instead, it includes new faces like Democrat Buddy Wheatley of Covington and Republican Travis Brenda, who teaches math at Rockcastle County High School.

Osborne said he wanted new members on the working group to educate them on why the pension issue is important. The committee is also seeking public comments, asking people to send messages and suggestions to PublicPensions@lrc.ky.gov.

Stivers and Osborne both said they hope the group can propose a bill in time for the legislature to approve before it adjourns for the year on March 29. But Osborne said there is a chance the issue will have to wait until the 2020 legislative session.

Kentucky's pension systems are at least $39 billion short of the money required to pay benefits over the next three decades, making them among the worst-funded public retirement plans in the country. Republican gov. Matt Bevin said the pension system is the most important issue facing the state.

Thursday night, speaking to a gathering of the state's business and legislative leaders, Bevin urged lawmakers to make changes to the system before it is too late. Representatives from Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's office did not respond to a request for comment about the pension working group.