By Roger Alford
MADISON COUNTY —
FRANKFORT (AP) — Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday with two days remaining to pass legislation intended to shore up Kentucky’s pension plans for state and local government retirees.
Restoring solvency to the pension system, which has a $33 billion unfunded liability, has been divisive for the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-led House, which have been working on the issue since the Legislature convened in January.
Rep. Tommy Turner, R-Somerset, said he expects lawmakers to meet until midnight both days.
“The last few days have historically been the busiest,” Turner said. “I don’t know why, but we always seem to wait until the last days, until time is running out, to get things done.”
Gov. Steve Beshear has been meeting with legislative leaders over a 1 1/2-week break to try to reach accords on a litany of bills that they hope to pass before adjourning.
The House and the Senate have competing proposals on how to reform the pension system.
The Senate is proposing a 401(k)-like retirement plan for new employees — a move the House opposes. And the House wants to use money from the lottery and horse tracks to boost the state’s yearly pension contribution. The Senate is balking at that idea. Beshear has been heavily involved in discussions, hoping to work out a compromise that can be passed in the final days.
The House proposal calls for the state lottery to add Keno and new online games to generate revenue for the pensions. It also calls for tax revenue from slot-like devices called Instant Racing machines at horse tracks to be designated for pensions. House Speaker Greg Stumbo has said those options could net $100 million a year, roughly the amount of additional money Kentucky needs to make its annual pension contribution.
In Kentucky, actual slots are banned, but two horse tracks have installed the Instant Racing machines. Players wager on the outcomes of past horse races, without knowing who won. The machines spawned a legal challenge that is pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court.
On another front, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has gotten involved in talks with lawmakers to try to get a bill passed that she said could ensure Kentucky soldiers deployed overseas have their votes counted in elections back home. She wants soldiers to be allowed to send ballots to the state electronically to make sure they’re not lost or delayed in the mail. And she wants a provision that would allow soldiers’ ballots that are returned by mail to be counted even if they arrive up to two days after an election.
The proposal has hit a snag in the state Senate, where lawmakers worry hackers could interfere with Kentucky elections and candidates in close elections could have to wait two additional days to find out whether they won.
Another measure that could be resolved in the legislature’s final days: a proposal to allow Medi-Share, a Christians-only health care plan, to resume operation in Kentucky. A Franklin County judge had ordered the Florida-based ministry to stop operating last year at the request of the Kentucky Department of Insurance. The Legislature is considering a measure that would exempt Medi-Share from state insurance regulations, allowing it to resume doing business in Kentucky.
Negotiators also will push for passage of a bill that would lay the groundwork for Kentucky farmers to grow hemp if the federal government were to lift a ban on the plant. The Senate passed the bill, but the House hasn’t yet had a floor vote. House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins has an amendment pending that he believes would add language requiring the University of Kentucky to research the feasibility of hemp farming.
The hemp legislation has been hotly debated this year in Frankfort. Stumbo said Adkins’ proposal could be “a path forward” on the issue. Hemp thrived as a crop in Kentucky generations ago but has been banned for decades by the federal government after it was classified as a controlled substance.
Legislative redistricting also remains undone heading into the final two days.
State Rep. Brent Yonts, the Greenville Democrat who chairs the House State Government Committee, said lawmakers need new legislative boundaries drawn now so they can prepare for the 2014 elections, when all 100 House seats and half of the 38 Senate seats could be up for grabs.
Always a divisive issue, redistricting is supposed to occur every 10 years to account for population changes found by the U.S. Census Bureau. Kentucky had major population shifts between 2000 and 2010, requiring reconfiguration of legislative districts in both the House and Senate.
The Kentucky Supreme Court struck down legislators’ first effort last year, finding that the proposed districts weren’t balanced by population and didn’t comply with the federal and state “one person, one vote” mandate.