Legislation during this year’s General Assembly requiring disclosure of public retirement benefits for all current and former lawmakers, “including their name, status, and projected or actual retirement benefit payments,” passed the Republican-run state Senate with unanimous, bipartisan support from all 38 senators and flew through the Democratically controlled House State Government Committee with 19 of the 21 members who voted approving it.
Only Reps. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, and Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, voted “no” on Senate Bill 45 filed by Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, which also had bipartisanship sponsorship as Republicans Joe Bowen, Danny Carroll, C. B. Embry Jr., Chris Girdler, Mike Wilson and Max Wise were joined as cosponsors by Louisville Democrat Perry Clark.
Opening up the legislators’ pension plan, which, mysteriously, is the healthiest of Kentucky’s retirement funds—while the Kentucky Employees Retirement System teeters on the verge of insolvency—would shed much-needed light on how part-time politicians collect $40,000 legislative salaries but retire with six-and-seven-figure publicly funded, but secretly maintained, pensions.
Even committee chairman Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, a vocal opponent of shining the light on the commonwealth’s crisis-ridden pension systems, voted “yes” to giving citizens access to information regarding his own retirement benefits.
Amazing, isn’t it, what can happen during political full moons known as election years?
The fact that it’s campaign season likely is the reason House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, made sure all 100 House members didn’t get to—or have to, depending on each lawmaker’s perspective—vote on SB 45.
Adkins in 2005 voted for House Bill 299—also known as the “Greed Bill”—when it passed with overwhelming support from both parties.
Stumbo as a result of HB 299 stands to reap an estimated lifetime legislative-pension windfall of $1.2 million—the difference in the amount he’ll amass should he fulfill his life expectancy versus what he would have gotten without the spike provided by the Greed Bill.
HB 299 allows Stumbo to use his three highest years’ of salary when he was attorney general in determining the size of his legislative pension rather than the much-smaller paycheck he received during his 31 years in the General Assembly.
While I don’t profess to understand how brown cows eat green grass and produce white milk, how many Kentucky taxpayers can possibly comprehend how a part-time politician earns a $40,000 salary, becomes attorney general for four years in an entirely different branch of government and winds up raking in millions in legislative-pension payments?
Putting transparency of politicians’ pensions to a vote on the House floor during an election season would have placed recalcitrant members of both parties who want to maintain Frankfort’s good-ole-boy secrecy in a tough spot.
These are mostly political dinosaurs who don’t want to open the blinds; they also don’t want a political challenger for their seat calling them on their opposition to open and accountable government.
Putting transparency for a vote before the entire House just ahead of an election would have successfully forced an overwhelming majority of lawmakers to do the right thing—even if for impure reasons.
Since Stumbo didn’t call the bill for a vote by the entire House, politicians like Yonts and Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, who voted “yes” in committee but failed to provide leadership needed to move the legislation to the floor for a vote, can go home and campaign on claims they support openness while breathing a sigh of political relief that most of their colleagues were denied the opportunity to weigh in.
As a result, taxpayers still don’t know how many pension checks Richards will collect thanks to his 40-year rumble in Frankfort, during the latter part of which our retirement systems—with the exception of the politicians’ plan—have spiraled downward.
Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute; Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at email@example.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.