At $65,000 per day, this week-long spectacle appears to be one expensive political stunt.

Earlier this week, Gov. Bevin announced a special session targeted at pension relief for "quasi-governmental" agencies – local health departments, rape crisis centers, spouse abuse shelters, child advocacy centers and state universities that do not have their own employee pension programs.

As of Friday morning, Kentucky lawmakers are in Frankfort to pass a bill that will put a bandage on a major public pension problem, without really fixing it for good.

Ironically, the general assembly already passed a bill that would provide some relief at the end of the regular session, but Gov. Matt Bevin vetoed it in April, saying parts of the bill would "violate both the moral and legal obligations we have" to Kentucky public retirees.

Now the governor has reconvened the legislative body to address the issue, again. Only the governor has the authority to call for a special legislative session and set the agenda.

The Kentucky Constitution reads, "when he shall convene the General Assembly it shall be by proclamation, stating the subjects to be considered, and no other shall be considered."

It is even appropriate for the governor to propose a bill. While that's all fine and good, the proclamation and parameters for this "extraordinary" special session seek to limit any deliberation or discussion and restricts lawmakers to his plan alone.

The constitution is clear that the governor should define the subject of discussion, but it does not grant executive power to restrict the discussion and procedure in reaching a solution.

The governor does not have the latitude to undermine the legislative process and overstep Kentucky's clearly defined separation of powers which states that "the legislative power shall be vested in a House of Representatives and a Senate, which together, shall be styled the "General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky."

I suspect the governor knows this. I would be willing to bet that he also knows that the Kentucky Attorney General, his political competitor for re-election, will have a responsibility to challenge any fix in court because of the procedural missteps in reaching the solution.

This is apparent in the governor's methodical use of the term "nonseverable" when describing the agenda for the session -- "for the sole purpose of considering legislation to enact a nonseverable, comprehensive Act to do the following ..."

Nonseverable means the bill cannot be separated into parts, there are no line items. It is all or nothing. If a court strikes down one part of the law, it all becomes invalid.

He is backing his political opponent into a corner. The Attorney General will have to challenge the bill on process, for which there is precedent, or kill the whole effort if there's one thing not to like. Basically, he is forcing the Attorney General to choose between turning a blind eye and letting the governor appear a hero, or painting the AG as the bad guy when the relief measure is struck down.

It is important to understand how we got into this mess to begin with.

There is an argument to be made that the issue has been ignored for decades by previous administrations and policymakers, and that 100 years of governing by today's minority party could have and should have addressed it long ago.

But the trigger that brought us the current landscape is largely due to changes made by the Kentucky Retirement Systems board of directors in 2017. The board lowered assumptions used by the actuary calculate the health of the state's pension plans, saying that the previously used assumptions were optimistically high and did not paint a true picture of the pension program's dire situation.

By lowering these assumptions, the reported liabilities of the state increased dramatically, therefore government employers were required to pay more to fund the program. As a result, a number of local agencies are now required to make much higher payments into the state pension plan, beginning this month.

Contribution rates of these agencies have now increased from 49% of their annual payroll, an already astronomical number, to 83%. Affected groups are already cutting staff and services, plan to cut more and will surely increase their consumer costs.

It is a bad deal all the way around.

But here is what you should know, 10 of the 16 board members that made these changes were appointed by the current governor. Moreover, the proposed solution is only one year of relief. Beyond that, there's still a major problem to solve.

Additionally, the relief given to these agencies is more funding that the state pension plan, already the worst-funded program in the country, will not receive -- causing even more unfunded pension liabilities and increasing the risk of breaking the "inviolable contract" within state law that protects the benefits of public employees.

Most people do not expect a real solution to the issue by this time next week. About the only thing this special legislative session will produce for certain will be talking points for the November gubernatorial election.

That said, this is one of those times where I really hope that I am wrong.


Brandon Cox is the publisher of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, Ky. He can be reached by email to bcox@kentuckynewera.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BrandonJCox.

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