Gov. Matt Bevin doesn’t have enough support among lawmakers to justify calling them back for a special session on a pension-relief measure he vetoed, a powerful state legislator said Monday.
“We’ve told the governor, ‘please don’t call us back in until you have those votes,'” state Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, told the Courier Journal in an interview.
Bevin, a Republican, stunned the GOP-controlled legislature when he unexpectedly blocked House Bill 358, which would have given regional universities, local health departments and other quasi-governmental agencies relief from the huge spike in pension costs they face July 1.
Those agencies now face drastic cutbacks, including closure of some health departments and other agencies that provide safety net services to Kentuckians.
“Frankly, right now, I think there’s a chance we don’t have a special session and we come back and deal with this in January,” said Thayer, who is the Senate floor leader.
“If the House can’t get the votes, I think there’s a chance. I don’t want to see that happen but there’s a part of me that says, maybe this needs to happen and have a very difficult six months for some of these agencies so people can understand this really is a crisis.”
Rep. Jerry T. Miller, an Eastwood Republican who chairs the House State Government Committee which considers pension bills, said he also suspects sufficient House votes are not in hand.
“I don’t know for sure, but apparently it’s not close enough to pass the bill right now. If it were close, I would be hearing more definitive talk about the session is starting tomorrow, or within the next couple days,” Miller said.
Republicans hold a 61-39 majority in the House.
Thayer had previously criticized Bevin’s decision to veto the legislation, and emphasized again in the interview that lawmakers could have explained to the governor why the measure was adequate.
But he said Monday that Bevin deserves credit for coming up with a plan that regional university presidents have said they support.
Thayer said it would be better for Kentucky leaders to get the relief measure passed before June 1, when many public universities begin to present their budgets.
Regional universities, health departments and other such agencies that are part of the state’s public pension system are facing a crisis because of more conservative assumptions for investment returns and payroll growth made by Kentucky Retirement Systems trustees in 2017. That caused their required contributions to skyrocket.
Others affected include mental health agencies, rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters. The University of Louisville and University of Kentucky have their own pension plans and are not affected.
While state government started paying the higher rate last year, the General Assembly gave the quasi-governmental groups a one-year delay, and this year those groups came back pleading for at least one more year-long reprieve.
The result was HB 358, a bill that passed on the 2019 session’s final night, March 28. It would have granted the one-year delay. Bevin vetoed the bill.
If Bevin, who is seeking re-election this year, calls a special session, which costs taxpayers about $66,434 a day, it would represent his second such pension-related effort in four months.
A week before Christmas, the governor called legislators back in hopes of enacting a new bill three days after the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down a broader pension proposal, Senate Bill 151, on procedural grounds in a unanimous opinion.
Republican lawmakers rebelled against Bevin by ending that special session less than 24 hours after the he summoned them to Frankfort, saying they couldn’t reach an agreement without more time to review the proposal in advance and discuss it.
Thayer dismissed worries when asked if another failed session could hurt Bevin ahead of the Republican primary. The governor is facing three opponents, including state Rep. Robert Goforth, R-East Bernstadt, in that election.
“I don’t think he’s going to call us in unless we have the votes,” Thayer said. “This governor plays the political calculation less than anyone else I’ve ever worked with.”
Reporters Deborah Yetter and Tom Loftus contributed to this story. Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at 502-582-4475 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/philb.