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Bill to improve transparency of taxing districts faces questions in Ky. Senate

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — State Auditor Adam Edelen’s proposal to strengthen oversight of more than 1,200 special taxing districts in Kentucky may face a tough time in the Senate.

The House approved House Bill 1 on Feb. 8 on a 96-1 vote, but Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer said Friday he has several concerns about the measure.

“Some of us think that the bill doesn’t go far enough in terms of providing the proper oversight when it comes to budgets and taxes and rate increases by these special taxing districts,” said Thayer, R-Georgetown.

He later said one suggestion has been for county fiscal courts to approve the budgets of the special districts, “so that’s something we need to look at, too.”

Under the bill, special taxing districts would have to file their annual financial reports with an online state registry. The public database would allow people to keep tabs on how, where and why special taxing districts spend $2.7 billion each year.

Kentucky pension bill clears first hurdle

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — A pension reform bill that would move new state employees to a 401(K)-style hybrid plan and eliminate annual cost-of-living increases for retirees cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday.

The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted unanimously — 10-0 — to pass Senate Bill 2 on Wednesday. It now goes to the full Senate.

The bill contains the recommendations of a task force that studied Kentucky’s ailing pension system this summer. Kentucky’s pension system has less than half the money it needs to pay for all current and future retirees.

Senate Bill 2 would move new state employees into a hybrid plan that would guarantee retirees a rate of return on investments instead of a defined pension benefit. The bill also says the state should pay its full contribution to the Kentucky Retirement Systems beginning next fiscal year. However, there is no funding mechanism for the additional payments to the pension system, believed to be more than $300 million beginning in July 2014.

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and sponsor of SB 2, said the task force opted not to include the funding mechanism because there was no consensus on how to make the increased payments.

“We did not have the support to include a bond or a tax increase,” Thayer said.

The bill directs the General Assembly to find the money in 2014, when the legislature tackles the two-year state budget. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has said he would prefer the legislature decide how to fund the bill in the current legislative session.

Thayer has said that the full Senate could vote on SB 2 by the end of this week.

Senate puts public pension bill on fast track

FRANKFORT – The Senate is putting on the fast track a bill that tries to remedy the state’s ailing employee pension system.

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, introduced Senate Bill 2 Tuesday and said the Senate State and Local Government Committee will vote on it Wednesday. The full Senate may vote on it by the end of this week, he added.

The bill primarily reflects the recommendations of the bipartisan Task Force on Kentucky Public Pensions. The pension system faces $30 billion in unfunded liabilities.

The Senate bill does not address how to pay for changes to the system. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has said he prefers legislation that would include funding.

–Jack Brammer

Senate bill addressing Kentucky’s ailing pension plan to be filed Feb. 5

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Senate leaders said Friday that a bill aimed at reforming Kentucky’s pension system will be filed on Feb. 5, the day the General Assembly returns from a two-week recess.

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, told the Senate on Friday that the Pew Center on the States, which worked with the task force on possible reforms, will return in late January to brief legislators on the task force’s recommendations.

Thayer, co-chairman of a task force on pension reform, said the bill filed in early February will include the task force’s recommendations as a starting point for debate.

Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, was appointed Friday to chair the House State Government Committee, where the pension bill will be assigned. Yonts said a similar House bill dealing with pension issues will likely be filed sometime after the Senate bill is filed.

“It will start on the same format,” Yonts said. “I’m sure there will be changes over here and there will be changes other there.”

Fixing the state’s underfunded pension system is a top priority of many lawmakers in the 30-workday session that began Tuesday. The pension system has only 44 percent of the money it needs to fund benefits for all current and future retirees.

A legislative task force that studied the issue this summer made a host of recommendations, including doing away with an annual cost-of-living increase for retirees, increasing the state’s contribution to the pension system and other reforms.

Senate committee chairmen named

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — A freshman legislator has been tapped to head a key Senate committee and Appropriations and Revenue will continue to be run by an independent but will have a Republican vice chairman, Senate Republicans said Friday.

In a written release, Republican Senate Caucus Chairman Dan Seum announced that the Republican majority selected new chairs for legislative committees after meeting for two days this week.

Sen. David Givens of Greensburg will be vice-chairman of the powerful Appropriations and Revenue Committee with current chairman Sen. Robert Leeper, an Independent from Paducah. Both men ran unsuccessfully for leadership positions earlier this month. Leeper challenged Sen. Robert Stivers for the top job and lost. Givens was bested by Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown for the senate majority leadership position.

Beshear: No need to remove Republican David Cross from elections board

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said Friday he finds no reason to remove Republican David M. Cross, an Albany attorney, from the state Board of Elections.

Questions arose earlier this week about whether Cross should be removed from the board for possibly violating a state law that says members cannot run for public office.

Cross, appointed by Beshear to the board in 2010, tried unsuccessfully in November to secure the Republican nomination for the open 16th Senate District seat in Southern Kentucky vacated by former Senate President David Williams.

Cross spent money to print flyers that said he was a “candidate” for the nomination. Republican Party leaders in the district eventually selected state Rep. Sara Beth Gregory of Monticello, who faces Democrat Bill Conn, a Williamsburg Independent school teacher, in a Dec. 18 special election.

Republicans select Robert Stivers as next president of Kentucky Senate

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Robert Stivers, a Manchester attorney who has been the Senate majority leader for three years, will replace David Williams as president of the Kentucky Senate.

Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown, a proponent of expanded gambling in Kentucky, will be the Senate’s new majority floor leader.

The 23 Republicans who expect to be seated in January and independent Sen. Bob Leeper of Paducah met behind closed doors Tuesday for about three hours to select their leaders for the next two years.

Stivers and Senate President Pro Tem Katie Kratz Stine, of Southgate, who faced no opposition in her leadership re-election, must still be elected by the full 38-member chamber in January before officially taking office.

Plan to fix Kentucky pension system calls for big spending and big changes

By John Cheves
jcheves@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Kentucky must pay far more into its state pension system — starting with an extra $327 million in Fiscal Year 2015 — and trim retirement benefits for new and existing workers, a legislative task force agreed Tuesday.

The task force met throughout the year to discuss the $12 billion Kentucky Retirement Systems, which has less than half the money it needs to provide lifetime pensions and health coverage for state and local government employees.

The panel voted Tuesday for a package of reforms that will be introduced as bills in the 2013 General Assembly.

Most significant, the state’s annual contribution to the pension fund, which recently has been only half the recommended sum, would jump to the full recommended sum in two years. Compared to the $505 million contribution due in the upcoming fiscal year, the bill would be $832 million in Fiscal Year 2015 and $1 billion in Fiscal Year 2020.

Auditor: Kentucky’s special taxing districts ‘operating in the pitch black’

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — The first-ever database and inventory of all special taxing districts in Kentucky should be completed by the end of this year, State Auditor Adam Edelen told a legislative committee on Wednesday.

Special districts can levy taxes and fees on citizens but are rarely overseen by an elected official. There is no central oversight of most special districts and no one watching to see how taxpayers dollars are spent, Edelen told the Interim Joint Committee on Local Government.

Some of Kentucky’s most prominent spending audits in recent years have involved special districts, including the Blue Grass Airport, the Fayette County Library and the Jefferson County and Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District. Other special districts include some fire departments, soil and water conservation districts and county health departments.

“They aren’t just operating in the dark, they are operating in the pitch black,” Edelen said.

Stumbo says gambling ‘probably dead for this session’

By Beth Musgrave
bmusgrave@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Friday that he does not expect his chamber to consider a constitutional amendment to allow casino-style gambling in Kentucky during this legislative session.

“I think it’s probably dead for this session,” said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.

Stumbo’s comments came the day after the state Senate rejected a constitutional amendment that would have let voters decide if they wanted seven casinos in the state. The Republican-controlled Senate voted 21-16 against the measure.

The issue of allowing expanded gambling at racetracks has been debated for more than a decade in Kentucky. The Democratic-controlled House has passed legislation in previous years that would allow the state’s racetracks to have casino-style gambling, but it was never heard in the Republican-controlled Senate.