Kentucky’s controversial pension law came to a head Thursday when the Supreme Court heard arguments from Attorney General Andy Beshear and Steve Pitt, Gov. Matt Bevin’s general counsel, regarding the measure’s legality.
Funded at 31%, with a $40 billion shortfall, Kentucky has one of the shakiest public pension plans in the country. The bill was enacted as a means to shore up the pension system.
The high court’s seven justices questioned Pitt, who is in favor of the law. They wanted to know about whether the bill had been passed by the legislature in keeping with the state constitution’s mandates.
At the heart of the court battle is a requirement that each bill must go through three readings on separate days in each chamber. The law, tucked into an 11-page sewer bill in the last days of the legislative session by the Bevin administration, passed in a matter of hours the following day. The pension reforms totaled 300 pages.
Attorney General Beshear, a Democrat, sued the Republican governor immediately after the bill passed. A local judge struck down the legislation in June due to the three-reading clause. Bevin appealed the verdict, bringing the pension reforms to the high court, one of the few times a Supreme Court hearing was on state television.
The new law would cap sick days accrued to be used toward a teachers’ retirement, raise health insurance contributions for state employees hired between 2003 and 2008, and also put new teachers into hybrid cash-balance pension plans instead of a traditional defined benefit plan.
Bevin did not attend the hearing, but posted a series of tweets expressing his sentiments, arguing that teachers would not lose their pensions.
In the Supreme Court hearing, Justice Michelle Keller asked Pitt if the constitutional measure is about informing the public—especially those affected by changes—of “what really is in a bill?”
Pitt replied that the bill’s passage was proper because it bore many similarities to an older version that was rejected earlier in the year, and argued that the legislature is allowed to write its own rules for what it considers a “reading” under the separation of powers doctrine. He added that, if the court axes the pension law, it will create legal issues for other pivotal laws passed similarly.
Pitt told reporters that legislators “knew what they were voting on.”
Beshear countered that argument, saying the process clearly violated the three-reading provision and that the law breaks the “inviolable contract” of the state constitution.
He also argued that it was not possible for lawmakers to read the bill and understand its contents within such a short timeframe.
“There is no way they knew the contents of what they were voting on,” he said.
Beshear told media that “under the constitution, an 11-page sewer bill can’t become a 291-page pension bill and pass in just six hours,” he said.
Beshear is running for governor next year, as Bevin seeks another term.
Kentucky’s Supreme Court will decide the verdict in the coming weeks.
“This is going to boil down to our strict separation of powers in the state and their unwillingness to step back and erode what has been called ‘most strict’ in the firmest separation of powers within the United States,” said Pitt.