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Bluegrass Beacon: Keep making the General Assembly great again

Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide. Following original release of this column, Gov. Matt Bevin announced he will not call a special session of the Kentucky General Assembly.

WLEX weather anchor Bill Meck was no doubt the most interesting speaker at this year’s Kentucky Public Retirees’ Annual Conference in Frankfort. Since I didn’t receive an invitation to this glorious affair, I’m not privy to what Meck, a storm chaser who once created “Danger From the Sky,” an award-winning documentary on severe weather, said that might relate his illustrious career forecasting weather patterns to the clashing of budget realities with promises – real and perceived – made to Kentucky’s public pensioners.

Perhaps Meck warned his audience that allowing distractions like deceptively calm weather prior to a tornado to cause a delay in taking cover from a fast-arriving storm is akin to ignoring or downplaying the seriousness of situations, whether they involve storms or diminishing public-retirement plans.

Opponents of proposals containing meaningful changes in the manner and level at which benefits are awarded by Kentucky’s retirement systems appear only too eager to allow distractions to result in more of the same kind of timid legislation passed in recent years and inaccurately labeled “substantive pension reform.”

Had such measures been sufficient, we wouldn’t find ourselves with a $65 billion-and-growing unfunded liability and retirement systems sliding toward the precipice of insolvency.

Nothing, including the ongoing sexual-harassment scandal, should waylay Frankfort from tackling this crisis. In fact, failing to do so will only darken the black cloud hanging over the Capitol.

An unwillingness to create a fairer, properly prefunded and more sustainable retirement-benefits structure cannot in any sense be considered consequential progress.

We’ve seen too many fluffy proposals in recent history epitomizing little more than whistling Dixie past Kentucky’s economic graveyard as communities scrape for dollars to pay ballooning pension bills while still funding services citizens expect from local governments. It’s substantially affecting taxpayers in places like Hopkins County, where in just the past few years, workers from outside Madisonville who work in the county seat were hit with an occupational tax while payroll taxes on employees in the city increased, property taxes rose by maximum-allowable rates and diners began forking over a supersized 3 percent restaurant tax.

Taxpayers across the commonwealth facing similar predicaments want such whistling to end. But it doesn’t have to end with a forced special legislative session in December.

Successful special sessions require a ton of solid agreement among legislators before the opening gavel falls.

Excessive debate in such a session likely would cause it to either run too long or shut down without a decision, which would be an unmitigated political disaster for the GOP. Gov. Bevin’s intentions are right in his desire to call the legislature back to Frankfort during the interim to address the pension predicament.

However, using his considerable leadership skills to make 2018 the most productive legislative session in Kentucky’s history would in no way diminish his standing. For years, House Democratic leaders enabled by their party’s governor wasted time during regular gatherings of the legislature with frivolous bills, ensuring that General Assembly sessions – especially in earlier weeks – moved lethargically and avoided any real meaningful reforms in most policy areas.

Hitting the ground running on pension reform during the regular budget session in early January would allow for the quantity and quality of debate in a Republican-led House that creates room for fresh ideas, including a new paradigm for retirement systems protecting taxpayers, benefitting beneficiaries, offering real changes and garnering enough votes to pass.

Republicans’ greatest accomplishment during the 2017 General Assembly was their impressive focus, boldness and work ethic during the first week of the session. The results added up to possibly the most-productive week in Kentucky’s 225-year legislative history.

For an encore, why not spend the first 30 days of the 2018 session fully debating and fixing the pension systems with politically successful legislation and the second half passing a tough, conservative budget, making it Kentucky’s most momentous legislative session in history?

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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