Showdown in court over controversial pension reform bill
The bill passed by lawmakers was meant to reform the state's struggling pension system, which is underfunded by about $40 billion.
FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- A bill that prompted massive protests by teachers at the state Capitol finally had its day in court.
Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd took two-and a-half hours to hear both sides of a lawsuit challenging the pension reform bill. It is a case that could impact not just retirement plans for public employees, but also the way the General Assembly does business.
Outside the courthouse, opponents of the pension bill gathered to show support for Attorney General Andy Beshear, who is suing to block the bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Matt Bevin.
“I'm very concerned about the attacks on public workers and their benefits because who's going to want to teach our children,” said Tiffany Dunn, a teacher at Lassiter Middle School in Louisville.
Inside, Beshear told Judge Shepherd that the pension bill, Senate Bill 151, is unconstitutional because it breaks the so-called inviolable contract, which guarantees certain benefits to public employees.
“Each and every one of those employees has had their constitutional rights violated, and their government has failed them,” said Beshear.
Beshear also attacked the way lawmakers passed the bill, inserting it into a sewer bill, and passing it in six hours with no public hearing.
“The passage of Senate Bill 151 showed us the worst of worst of state government,” Beshear said.
Steve Pitt, the attorney for Gov. Bevin, countered by arguing that the court system has no authority over the rules of the General Assembly.
“Courts should not get involved in those,” said Pitt.
Pitt said that the bill does not affect current state employees - only future workers - and does not violate the so-called inviolable contract. In fact, Pitt argued, the bill is actually good for teachers.
“Teachers are not hurt, they are helped by this bill,” Pitt said before being drowned out by jeers from the crowd in the courtroom.
The governor’s legal team did win one legal victory. Shepherd said he would not consider Beshear’s argument that the bill was invalid because it was signed by Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne and not the Speaker of the House. The Speaker’s post was vacant at the time following the resignation of Jeff Hoover.
Shepherd said Osborne was serving as the legal presiding officer of the House. Beshear later withdrew his argument.
After the hearing, Beshear sounded confident that he had made his case.
“I believe, in the end, the law is on our side. The constitution is on our side,” Beshear told WDRB News..
Pitt said the bottom line is the future of the pension system, which is billions of dollars in the hole.
“That's what's at stake in this case. These process arguments, I think, are a sideshow - the constitutional arguments. And I hope the court will see it that way,” said Pitt.
Shepherd said he will rule as soon as possible. But no matter who wins, the case will likely go straight to the Kentucky Supreme Court.
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