After pension ruling, Kentucky GOP in position to try again

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Teachers rejoiced and Republicans despaired across Kentucky on Thursday as the state's Supreme Court struck down a law that had made changes to one of the country's worst-funded pension systems.


But by February, those roles could be reversed.


The Republican-controlled state legislature began trying in 2018 to fix the state's pension system, which is estimated to be at least $38 billion short of what's needed to pay benefits over the next three decades. The original proposal would have cut benefits for current teachers, including eliminating annual cost-of-living raises for retirees.


Thousands of teachers responded by protesting at the state Capitol. Lawmakers buckled under the pressure, changing the bill so that it had little impact on current teachers. The state Supreme Court struck that law down Thursday on procedural grounds.


The court case unfolded against the backdrop of an election in which more than 30 teachers were on the ballot. But they did not sweep the elections. In the end, more lawmakers who voted against the pension bill lost than those who voted for it. That has emboldened some Republicans, who think they can forge ahead with a new pension bill that's not as generous to current teachers when the legislature reconvenes next month.


"That deal is off the table," said Damon Thayer, the Republican floor leader in the state Senate who said he will push his colleagues to pass something similar to the original pension proposal. "The election proved you can take a tough vote and not be punished for it."


Teachers were outraged when lawmakers used a legislative maneuver to pass the amended pension bill so quickly that it wasn't available for the public to read until the day after the vote.


The state's highest court ruled Thursday that legislative maneuver was unconstitutional, making the law invalid.


"I do feel vindicated. I'm proud of what we did," said Jessica Page, an art teacher at Kathryn Winn Primary in Carrolton, Kentucky. "I also do respect the governor and respect the fact that we do need some type of pension reform. I think it needs to be fair and I think it needs to be out in the open."


Democrat Tina Bojanowski, a special education teacher in Jefferson County, had one of the few Democratic victories on election day when she defeated Republican state Rep. Phil Moffett. Bojanowski celebrated the court's ruling on Thursday. But she's nervous heading into the session to see how the Republican majority will respond.


"It took a lot of work to get them to kind of get to a pension bill that we felt better about," Bojanowski said. "I'm gravely concerned about the impact of the pension bill that might be filed."


House Republican leaders on Thursday were mum about what type of bill they might file next year. They called the ruling "a major setback," but said they are "committed to leading in the effort to enact a solution."


Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called the court's ruling "an unprecedented power grab by activist judges."


He said he expects from lawmakers next year "no less than the initial effort" on pensions.


"Senate bill 151, let's be honest, was not going to save the pension system by itself. But it was going to stop the bleeding ... it was going to give us the chance to save the pension system. That has now been thrown out," he said. "This is a poke in the eye, a kick in the teeth and a stab in the back to our legislature."


Bevin is up for re-election in 2019. He could face Democrat Andy Beshear, the state's attorney general who filed the lawsuit that led to Thursday's ruling. Beshear called the ruling "a landmark win for all of our public servants." He urged lawmakers to find a new, dedicated revenue source for the pension system, including passing a law to expand gambling.


Bevin has rejected that proposal, and it's unclear if enough Republicans in the legislature would support it. Bevin and Beshear both bristled at questions about how Thursday's ruling might impact the 2019 governor's race.


"Does this help me or hurt me politically? That is the absolute wrong way to be looking at this," Bevin said. "This is bad for Kentucky."

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