By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — A final verdict on the 2013 General Assembly will probably require years to see if a pension reform package works as promised.
After all, Gov. Steve Beshear and lawmakers promised in 2008 they’d solved the long-term problem of a badly underfunded state employee pension system — only to face “a major fiscal crisis” this year as ratings agencies downgraded the state’s bond ratings because the pension funds were so badly underfunded.
But generally, rank-and-file lawmakers this year saw passage of the pension reform as a major accomplishment which made the 2013 session successful. Most gave the session a “B” grade, but that doesn’t mean they were altogether pleased with how the session played out.
“For a 24-working day session, a lot was accomplished,” said Rep. Tanya Pullin, D-South Shore. The biggest accomplishment was pension reform, though Pullin, like many lawmakers, wasn’t pleased with all the individual aspects of the bill.
Still, she said, “Nearly 120 bills were vetted, debated and passed into law.”
Many Democrats found it hard to swallow the change in benefits structure for new employees, and while Democrats mostly wanted a specified funding source for the system, they weren’t all pleased with the one which finally was approved.
Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, voted for the funding package but not for the benefits changes. He wasn’t happy to have to make a decision on both on the final day of the session without time to fully analyze the two bills.
“We were given an ultimatum (on Monday),” Bell said Tuesday night just before the legislation was passed on the session’s final day. “It’s a 230-page bill and I’ve not even seen it, and I’ve got to go in there and vote on it.”
It’s a common complaint in both chambers. Pullin, too, is known for resisting voting on legislation at the last minute, often demanding at least 24 hours to study a bill before she votes on it.
“For me, I see kind of a corollary to a lazy college student who knows what they need to do, but wait until two days before the test and cramming all night,” said Rep. Jill York, R-Grayson.
She said she’d give the session a “solid B” on policy but the organization and process didn’t score that well.
It’s not unusual to hear voters complain about what they see as inefficiency in the legislature. Many would be surprised at how many lawmakers feel the same way.
Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond, said she’d give organization of the session an F.
“The first year I was here, they said: ‘We’ve never seen a session like this,’” Smart said. “Then last year, they said they’d never seen one like that one. This year, they’re saying they NEVER have seen a session like this.
“Theoretically, if something isn’t working, you’d think you’d change it eventually,” said Smart.
Maybe next year.
Rep. Regina Bunch, R-Williamsburg, also isn’t happy with the way things run in Frankfort.
Prior to the vote on pensions, Bunch said she’d probably give the session a C-minus.
“It depends on whether we have a special session. If we don’t, I might give it a higher grade.”
Passage of the pension plan makes a special session less likely. Still, Bunch thinks lawmakers’ time isn’t managed productively by legislative leaders.
“We waste a lot of time because we don’t get into the important issues at the beginning of the session when we have time to do things right,” Bunch said. “Instead they’re left to the last day. Why would we leave Senate Bill 2 (pension reform) to the last day?”
Sen. Jared Carpenter, R-Berea, said the session gets a B-plus grade from him, primarily because of a more bipartisan atmosphere.
That led to action “on some of the toughest issues Kentucky has ever faced,” he said, referring to the pension reform.
Sen. Walter Blevins, D-Morehead, also said he “would probably give the session a B-plus because we came in here to take care of the pension fund,” although Blevins strongly opposed some of the benefit changes and didn’t vote for that bill.
But at least lawmakers addressed the problem, Blevins said, and there were other positive accomplishments like election law and alcohol law reforms. He wasn’t happy, however, the Senate delayed until next year passing a redistricting plan.
Their colleague, Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, is pleased lawmakers dealt with pensions, “an important issue that affects a whole lot of people.” But she’d preferred a more collaborative, open process.
“We could have managed the session better in terms of information and letting people have their say on such important issues,” Webb said. “Or even letting people offer amendments.”
Rep. Tommy Turner, R-Somerset, said Tuesday before the pension vote he’d “probably give it a C, but that could go up or down when we vote on pensions.” After the bill passed, Turner said he’d move the grade up, “because that was the number one issue when we came up here.”
For now, lawmakers are “generally pleased” as Blevins put it. It might not be in the form they preferred, but they addressed pensions and made a special session less likely and passed some other good bills.
For now, they’ll take it.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.