This “lame duck” period between the midterm elections and the beginning of the new year has already featured multiple Republican candidates for the role of Grinch. Kentucky governor Matt Bevin put in his audition yesterday by calling an instant pre-Christmas special session of the state legislature in order to cut public employee pensions. He waited until 4 p.m. local time to issue his call for a session to begin at 8 p.m. Monday, which didn’t give some legislators from the Western part of the state time to get there, even if they were waiting by their cars with bags packed.
But the legislature convened, and after Republican leaders managed to achieve a late-night quorum, two bills were introduced by a GOP committee chair that constituted a revised version of a pension “reform” bill struck down last week by the Kentucky Supreme Court for violating transparency guarantees in the state constitution. This whole saga began last year when at the very end of the regular legislative session, Bevin and his legislative allies suddenly attached the pension bill to sewage-system legislation that was near passage. Teachers (among the public employees affected by the proposed pension changes) soon went on strike in many parts of the state, and won a closely related victory when legislators enacted a budget with education funding increases by overriding a Bevin veto.
The court ruling threatened Bevin and his allies with a complete defeat of his efforts to roll back public employee pension guarantees instead of more adequately funding the system. Had he waited until the regular 2019 legislative session to bring back his pension cuts, he would have needed a supermajority of legislators to enact them. And even though Republicans retained their legislative supermajorities in the November elections, at least one conspicuous pension “reform” supporter, House GOP leader Jonathan Shell, lost a primary to a teacher opposed to the bill and how it was enacted. So some lawmakers in Bevin’s own party are nervous about going back to the well again for this unpopular legislation, particularly since the nasty surprise of a pre-Christmas special session is highly reminiscent of the unsavory methods used to enact the bill in the first place.
Legislators arriving in Frankfort were regaled by quickly assembled protesters singing Christmas carols adapted for the occasion:
We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas,
We wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy new year.
We don’t want a special session, we don’t want a special session,
We don’t want a special session, so leave here right now!
It’s unclear at this point if Bevin’s gambit will succeed. Even if pension legislation is enacted, it could be watered down by legislators fearing a backlash by teachers, other public employees, and plain citizens tired of the turmoil and reluctant to further damage Kentucky’s public schools. Each version of pension “reform” has gotten a bit less draconian, as Sarah Jones observed last year when the legislature passed the bill the courts just struck down:
“Each version has gotten less horrible because there’s so much pushback, but it’s still a bad bill,” said Jason Bailey, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. S.B. 151 doesn’t cut cost of living adjustments for retirees, unlike its predecessors. But it does end the current defined benefit plan for teachers hired after January 1, 2019, and moves them into a hybrid cash balance plan that pins benefits to market returns. According to Bailey’s analysis, that hybrid plan guarantees lower rates of return for teachers, and therefore reduces their lifetime earnings. Teachers also will no longer be able to put accumulated sick days toward retirement.
It has not been lost on anyone that Bevin will face voters in 2019. His two declared Democratic rivals are front and center in the pension fight: Attorney General Andy Beshear, who brought the suit that culminated in the Supreme Court’s action, and House Democratic Leader Rocky Adkins, who is leading the resistance to Bevin’s measure during this special session. Both Democrats led the incumbent in a recent statewide poll. Bevin’s approval ratio as of October, according to Morning Consult, was 30/55. Trying to give public employees a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings probably won’t help Bevin have a very happy New Year.