Gov. Bevin

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called state lawmakers into a surprise special session beginning Monday at 8 p.m. to address problems with the state pension systems.

Bevin’s call follows the state Supreme Court’s decision on Thursday to strike down a pension reform bill based on the method lawmakers used to pass it last spring.

In a news conference lasting only three minutes Monday afternoon, Bevin said the "only chance" the state has to meet its "legal and moral obligation" to pay retirement benefits to teachers and other government employees is to "change" the system.

But Bevin did not say which reforms he favors.

"The exact details of how that will be done is to be determined," said Bevin, adding that he has confidence in lawmakers to address the problem.

Meetings among both Senate and House leadership began around 8 p.m. Monday and lasted four hours. A handful of teachers hurried to Frankfort and packed into the chamber, at one point belting Christmas carols as lawmakers met.

Republicans have super-majorities in the state House and Senate, and that won't change when lawmakers convene for the regular session in January.

Kentucky's pension systems, among the worst funded in the country, are at least $38 billion short of the money they need to pay benefits over the next three decades.

The reform plan passed earlier this year and struck down by the high court would not have done much to address the funding gap. The vast majority of its changes were for future employees, who would have hybrid-cash balance plans instead of guaranteed payments from the state.

But Bevin has said the bill was a good first step toward tackling the pension problem.

He said Monday that state finance professionals had already shared information with bond ratings agencies about the effect of the Supreme Court decision on the state's creditworthiness.

He also suggested any legislation resulting from the special session might be only one "bite of the apple," with further changes needed later.

Traditionally, five days is the minimum time needed for a bill to move through the entire legislative process, meaning Friday would be the soonest a pension plan could be delivered to Bevin for his signature.

Lawmakers advanced a late-stage pension compromise earlier this year by overwriting a sewer bill that had already cleared some legislative hurdles. The Supreme Court ruled last week that the maneuver was improper and invalidated the law.

Incoming House Speaker David Osborne, a Republican from Oldham County, said in a statement that his members are ready for the special session.

“Our caucus stands willing and able to do the people’s business and lead on the critical issues facing Kentucky,” Osborne said. 

Ben Self, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, called the special session "an unbelievable waste of taxpayer resources" only two weeks ahead of lawmakers' regular session.

“Bevin’s political stunt—which will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars—is a slap in the face to hardworking Kentuckians,” Self said.

Brent McKim, president of the union representing about 6,000 public school teachers in Jefferson County, also criticized the move, calling the timing "terrible" for teachers and others who want to be engaged in the political process.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer money to call a special session to deal with a piece of legislation that will have essentially no effect on the financial future of the retirement system but will harm our ability to attract and keep great teachers that our students deserve,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. WDRB's Marcus Green and Kevin Wheatley also contributed. Copyright 2018 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822, cotts@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook

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Chris Otts reports for WDRB.com about business and economic topics, higher education and local / state government. He joined WDRB News in 2013 after seven years with The Courier-Journal. Got a tip? Chris is at 502-585-0822 and cotts@wdrb.com.