FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A judge has ruled Kentucky's lawmakers broke the law when they held a private meeting to discuss changes to the state's public pension system.
The House of Representatives held a closed-door meeting in August to discuss the state's struggling pension plan. Lawmakers justified the private meeting by calling it a joint gathering of the Republican and Democratic caucuses, which are exempt from the state's open meetings law.
But the legislature only has two political parties, meaning all 100 members were invited. Just one, Democratic Rep. Jim Wayne, walked out of the meeting in protest.
The Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions appealed to the Attorney General, who ruled the House broke the law. The House then appealed in state court, but Franklin circuit Judge Thomas Wingate agreed with the institute in an opinion issued last week.
"The Court finds that the August 29, 2017 meeting consisted of a public agency with a quorum of members of both majority and minority parties present and public business was discussed," Wingate wrote. "No statutory exception exists to find the meeting was not in violation of the Open Meetings Act, and the House's failure to open the meeting to the public violated the Act."
Acting House Speaker David Osborne said despite the ruling, "the House Majority Caucus still believes that its decision was based on solid legal footing. We will make additional decisions in the near future."
Jim Waters, the institute's executive director, said he hopes the ruling will set a precedent in the public policy sphere.
"Politicians cannot meet behind closed doors just because an issue is difficult to discuss or controversial," Waters said. "I think if they had been allowed to do this without being challenge it would be easier the next time and it would be moving in the wrong direction in terms of citizens access to their government."
Lawmakers ended up passing a bill in March to make changes to the state's public pension systems, which is one of the worst-funded retirement plans in the country. The vote came on one of the last days of the legislative session on a bill that would mostly impact future hires. Lawmakers used a legislative maneuver to introduce the bill and pass it on the same day without making it available to the public. Attorney General Andy Beshear has sued to block the bill from becoming law.