Pardon our crude headline but we could not come up with a better description of the messy situation facing Kentucky’s lawmakers and active and retired public employees.
Last week’s landmark ruling in Franklin Circuit Court held that SB 151, enacted earlier this year, is unconstitutional because it did not receive three readings in each chamber and because only 49 House members voted for it.
The bill started as a change in regulations for sewer systems but was changed overnight into a 291-page pension reform bill and passed by both houses within a six-hour span.
Judge Phillip Shepherd never got around to the primary basis for the legal challenge – that altering retirement benefits is contrary to the so-called “inviolable contract” between state government and all public employees which guarantees current retirement benefits in perpetuity.
Attorney General Andy Beshear filed the challenge on behalf of his office and two groups of public employees.
He and other Democrats hailed the decision but Gov. Matt Bevin and GOP leaders in the General Assembly were very critical. Bevin seized the opportunity for another personal attack on Judge Shepherd’s fitness as a judge.
House Democratic Leader Rocky Adkins said of the ruling:
“I appreciate today’s ruling, which is a victory in every sense of the word for the people of Kentucky, especially our teachers, public employees and retirees. It confirms the arguments that House Democrats and I made as we soon saw the bill. I said it was a bad bill then; it’s still a bad bill today.”
Republicans warned that strict interpretation of the constitutional requirement for a bill to be read on three separate days in each chamber could invalidate perhaps hundreds of laws passed in recent years.
Meanwhile, hundreds of state and local government employees and public-school educators have filed retirement forms in recent weeks in an effort to avoid reduced benefits under the new pension law, now ruled null and void.
Shepherd’s decision no doubt will be appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court. If that court upholds the ruling, it will take a special legislative session to clean up this mess.
Perhaps using a sewer bill as the legislative vehicle for quick passage was appropriate after all.