Kentucky's governor and attorney general begin legal battle over pension reform
The big question is whether Senate Bill 151 that passed the General Assembly and was signed into law by the governor is legal.
FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- The retirement plan for thousands of public employees is at stake in a Frankfort courtroom as Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear begin their legal battle over pension reform.
The big question is whether the pension bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor breaks the so-called inviolable contract, which guarantees certain benefits to public employees.
The Attorney General says it does.
"The legislature made a promise decades ago, that if you dedicate your life to public service, teaching our kids, protecting our families, serving the neglected, they would guarantee you a good retirement," Beshear told reporters following the hearing.
But the governor's attorney, Steve Pitt, is raising questions about exactly what that contract covers.
"Everybody has said and assumed down through the years and taken as gospel, 'Oh, there is an inviolable contract.' Alright, so there is an inviolable contract. What does it say? Let's find that out," Pitt said.
Beshear is challenging not just what is in the bill, but also the way lawmakers passed it. The language of the pension bill was inserted into what was a waste water bill, and rushed through in just a few hours. The decision could, potentially, have a major impact on the way the legislature operates.
"The legislature has to act in an open, honest, and transparent way," said Beshear.
The governor's team counters that lawmakers have full authority over how they pass legislation.
The matter of whether the legislature complies with the Constitution in the passing of legislation is purely a legislative question," said Pitt. "It's not one that the courts can and will inquire into under separation of powers."
During the hearing, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd also raised a new issue. The pension bill, SB 151, passed the House by a vote of 49-46. Shepherd asked both sides to prepare arguments regarding whether SB 151 qualifies as a spending bill, which would have required a constitutional majority of at least 51 votes to pass.
"There is no way that this is an appropriations bill. This pension bill appropriates no money for anything," said Pitt.
"If the court determines that this qualifies as a debt or an appropriation, under law, and sometimes that can be technical, then the bill would be void for those reasons," said Beshear.
The judge must also decide whether Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne had the legal authority to sign the pension bill. He has presided over the House since the position of Speaker has been vacant since the resignation of Jeff Hoover.
Shepherd said he will consolidate all the issues into one case. The judge did schedule a hearing for next Wednesday on the governor's motion to disqualify Beshear from the case because the Attorney General gave lawmakers legal advice on the pension bill.
"You cannot provide legal advice to people, and then have them accept that legal advice or reject that legal advice, and then turn around and sue them," Pitt told reporters.
Beshear said previous court cases have found that the Attorney General “isn’t some regular lawyer,” and is not bound by the same restrictions when it comes to issues of the Constitution.
"In the end, the Bevin administration simply wants to prevent me from fighting for teachers and firefighters, and for making them accountable," said Beshear.
Shepherd said he will hear the substance of the case in early June, and acknowledged that, ultimately, the final decision on the legality of the pension bill will be up to the Kentucky Supreme Court.
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