Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon column is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.
Legislators frequently grumble about Kentuckians’ lack of interest in, attention to and knowledge of complicated issues like the public-pension system.
Some observation about how “people’s eyes glaze over when I start talking pensions” usually accompanies such grievances.
But now, with the debate turning away from the usual, seemingly far-away discussions about impersonal pension-policy issues like ARC payments and investment returns to matters landing closer to home – how future benefits for current state workers are determined, for example – individual Kentuckians and citizen-groups are paying attention, weighing in and even seeking more information.
All of which makes the House of Representatives’ secret meeting on Aug. 29 bewildering.
The day following the release of long-awaited recommendations by PFM, the consulting group charged with auditing Kentucky’s troubled public-pension systems, the House closed its doors.
Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, explains: the political pow-wow was “for informational purposes only.”
Meeting secretly, Hoover said, would allow lawmakers to gather information from PFM consultants and state Budget Director John Chilton “without the media there.”
It would, he continued, “make it a more comfortable setting for them to ask questions.”
To try and verify this meeting was “for informational purposes only,” the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government filed a complaint requesting not only an acknowledgement by House leadership that open-meetings requirements were violated, but that it also “provide the public with a copy of any written record or audio or video recording of the closed session.”
Even if the recent secret meeting was limited to gathering information, why close doors?
What was said that an already underinformed citizenry would not have benefited from hearing?
What’s different about this pension-reform discussion compared to, say, reforms in 2008 and 2013 where, since the doors remained opened, all could witness the glad-handing and back-slapping accompanying empty claims of having fixed the system for decades to come only to discover a few short years later little was accomplished except delaying tough decisions while the retirement systems’ funding levels continued to slide?
Considering how little information has been available to taxpayers who pay the bills and hundreds of thousands of state workers and retirees who have no fingernails left while worrying about how Frankfort ultimately will respond to PFM’s report, shouldn’t elected representatives’ first meeting concerning its recommendations have been accompanied by flung-wide-open doors?
This wasn’t a private company’s board meeting where the agenda is driven by how to increase profits and satisfy shareholders.
These are elected representatives meeting to discuss the worst-in-the-nation pension crisis, which threatens funding for every government program and service that anyone from either side of the political aisle cares about and is burdened by liability that will require billions of our tax dollars to fix.
Why wasn’t this meeting televised from Pikeville to Paducah on Kentucky Educational Television (KET)?
What could be a higher priority for KET, for which taxpayers shell out more than $14 million annually, than covering such a critical gathering of policymakers concerning this severe threat to the commonwealth’s entire economic stability and future?
“Yes, but that would be terribly uncomfortable for the politicians.” shaky politically-consternated voices would claim in united knee-jerking reaction.
In view of what’s at stake should this legislature fail to take needed steps to ensure digging in Kentucky’s pension hole ceases, it must be nothing but uncomfortable.
This debate must be one of the legislature’s toughest, most tension-filled and, yes, unpleasant debates in its long history.
Reporters must be allowed on the floor to cover it; galleries must be opened for Kentuckians to witness it.
True government transparency requires citizens not only know the final score but behold the good, bad, maybe even some ugly during all nine innings.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @bipps on Twitter.