FRANKFORT — A politically-divided Senate approved a proposal Wednesday to cancel a costly benefit that allows state lawmakers to pad their legislative pensions by taking full-time state jobs.
The controversial retirement perk was wielded as a political weapon in recent months by Gov. Steve Beshear as he tried to gain control of the state Senate from Republicans.
Before approving the bill in a 21-17 vote, Democrats and Republican argued vehemently about whether the proposed change has any real effect on current lawmakers.
The bill’s sponsor, newly-elected Republican state Sen. Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon, said the measure affects all lawmakers who retire in the future, but Senate Democrats said the proposal only impacts future lawmakers.
Senate Minority Leader Ed Worley, D-Richmond, called the measure “a feel-good political bill” with no immediate impact.
Senate Bill 51 now goes to the House for its consideration. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he believed the measure will likely pass the House. “It stands a fairly good chance …” he said.
The bill would cancel a 2005 provision that allows annual retirement benefits to increase up to sixfold for part-time lawmakers who accept appointments to a judicial or executive branch job.
The 2005 change specifically altered the legislative pension program so lawmakers who become judges or take positions in the executive branch will get a pension benefit based on their highest three years of salaries in state government — not just their wages as part-time lawmakers.
A recently released actuarial report for the Kentucky Legislators Retirement Plan said the cost of providing pensions for state legislators will jump from $759,158 in the current budget to $4.28 million during the next two years. Almost half of the $4.28 million will be used to pay for the 2005 provision.
Higdon was adamant that his proposed change would affect all future retirees. He told the Senate State and Local Government Committee, which approved the measure earlier Wednesday on a 7-5 partisan vote, that it would be unfair to change the benefits of those legislators who are already drawing benefits from the 2005 law.
Still, Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, said in a floor speech that Higdon’s bill “would not apply to any member of this General Assembly in their future retirement.”
“What the bill would do would prevent any legislator who is elected after this bill becomes law in July from getting those benefits,” he said.
Carroll also said Higdon’s bill would limit governors from taking advantage of the experience of legislators in making appointments.
Senate President David Williams disagreed, adding that Higdon’s bill is needed because the governor has “abused” the 2005 provision.
Last year, Republican Sens. Charlie Borders of Grayson and Dan Kelly of Springfield resigned after accepting appointments by Beshear.
The Democrats captured Borders’ district seat but the Republicans kept Kelly’s, giving the GOP a 20-17 majority in the Senate, with one independent who generally sides with Republicans.
Democratic Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson, who replaced Borders, said considers Higdon’s bill “retribution” for her actions.
“Some people might think this is about politics, but it is not,” Higdon said. “It is about doing the right thing.”
–Jack Brammer and Janet Patton