This morning the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down Senate Bill 151, the controversial “sewage bill” that was passed last spring to add significant structural changes to the pension systems for state workers. These structural changes, including a freeze on unused sick leave for teachers and a cash-balance hybrid retirement system for future hires, were deemed unconstitutional on procedural grounds. The court specifically cited the lack of three required readings of the bill before it could be brought to a vote, and the lower court’s ruling that these structural changes to the bill would actually increase the state’s debt, and thus would require approval in the House of a majority of 51 votes.
Legislative Slight of Hand
One of the main agenda items for the GOP during the 2018 session was to pass Senate Bill 1 (SB1), which was the Republican leadership’s version of Governor Bevin’s pension bill. As the legislative session wore on, it became increasingly obvious that demonstrations and advocacy by state workers and their professional organizations had stalled the progress of SB1, and that it ultimately would not pass as it was written. With the end of the session looming large, the Republican leadership crafted a more moderate version of the bill, which they believed would be more palatable to moderate members of their party. Their problem: There was not ample time for the required three readings of this new bill before the session would end.
Their solution would be to use a legislative procedure called a substitution amendment to fast-track their new bill through the approval process. A substitution amendment is when legislators substitute the entire text of a bill with a different full text. In the case of the pension bill, legislators chose to substitute their new bill for Senate Bill 151, a bill relating to wastewater management (or “sewage bill”). Senate Bill 151 had already received two of the three required readings before it died in committee. GOP leadership believed that they could substitute their new pension bill for SB151, and then fast-track it for a vote after only one reading. The courts disagreed, citing this “slight of hand” as a reason for rejecting the state’s case.
The court’s decision this morning is important because it upholds the right of citizens to have a voice in legislative decisions by engaging with their elected leaders. Our State Constitution calls for three readings of every bill, in order that legislators and their constituents have ample time to read and understand proposed legislation, and for citizens to share their concerns and opinions about individual bills and make their will known before those bills are passed. The intent is that legislators’ votes should reflect the will of their constituents. After months of demonstrations against the governor’s pension proposal and Senate Bill 1, it should have been obvious to legislators that there was no widespread support for pension reform. The decision to bypass the requirement for three full readings of the “sewage bill” indicates that elected GOP leaders chose to leverage the power of their numbers to advance their legislative agenda rather than honoring the democratic will of their constituents. Thank you to the Kentucky Supreme Court for honoring and protecting the rights of citizens to use their voice to influence state government.
The fact that the Court’s decision struck down the pension bill on procedural grounds does not preclude legislators from taking another shot at passing structural changes to Kentucky’s pension systems during the coming legislative session. Going forward, if our elected leaders want to renew their push to attack our state employee retirement systems, they will surely want to proceed carefully with an eye on following constitutional requirements, so as to avoid another challenge in court. This means that any new pension legislation proposed this year will move somewhat more slowly than the 48 hours that it took them to pass their SB151 last year. That gives citizens a chance to engage with their legislators, sharing their opinions and concerns about any new bills. It is our job to make sure that we are always informed and ready to act. Whether it is through phone calls and emails to our legislators, town halls with our elected leaders, or rallies at the capitol, we must unite to make our voices heard.