Kentucky House holds private meeting to discuss pensions

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Facing unpopular decisions on the state’s failing public pension systems, the Kentucky House of Representatives shut the public out of its first discussion of potential changes by holding a closed-door meeting Tuesday to discuss a state-funded report that recommends pay cuts for retirees and freezing benefits for current workers.

House Republicans campaigned on changing the pension system last fall, and voters gave them a super majority for the first time in state history.

Since January, Republican leaders have vowed to pass legislation in a special session this year to fix the pension system, which is at least $33 billion short of paying the retirement benefits for state workers, police officers, firefighters and public school teachers over the next 30 years.

But Republicans have not said what those changes would be. Monday, a state-funded analysis recommended major changes, including taking away 16 years’ worth of cost-of-living raises for some retirees and freezing the benefits for current workers and moving them into a 401(k)-style plan.

"It's like a slap in the face to say what you did or what you've done is really just dollars and cents, and we need that money back," said Buddy Wheatley, a retired Covington firefighter.

Tuesday, Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover invited all 100 members to a closed-door meeting to discuss the report.

“This is beyond frightening,” said David Smith, executive director of the Kentucky Association of State Employees. “We would hope that the legislators would recognize the importance of being more open about this discussion.”

Bryanna Carroll, governmental affairs director for the Kentucky League of Cities, said the group does not have an opinion on how the House of Representatives does business. But she said the meeting will “hopefully be a positive for us to gauge where the members are on the issue.”

The Associated Press objected to the meeting being closed to the public. Kentucky’s Open Meetings Act requires any meeting of a quorum of any public agency to be open to the public. Laura Hendrix, general counsel for the House majority leadership, said caucus meetings are exempt from the law. She said Tuesday’s meeting was officially a meeting of the House Republican caucus with the Democratic caucus as invited guests.

“In effect, the Speaker of the House has decided to call a meeting of the entire House for the purpose of discussing public business,” Associated Press attorney Brian Barrett wrote in a letter to the Speaker’s office. “It cannot be the case that the House can avoid its obligations under the (Open Meetings) Act merely by describing a meeting as a collection of committees rather than a quorum of the governing body. This plainly violates the spirit of the law and is both substantively and legally dubious.”

Democratic state Rep. Jim Wayne walked out of the meeting after he said his request to make it open to the public was denied. He appeared to be the only lawmaker to leave the meeting.

“It’s not the right way to do things,” Wayne said. “We’ve seen under the leadership of Jeff Hoover a number of opportunities for transparency to have basically been kicked off the road.”

Hoover told reporters after the meeting that “there was no discussion, it was members asking questions of our budget director and our consultants.” He said the meeting was “for informational purposes only.”

“I felt really good about it. We wanted to do that to give them the opportunity to do it without the media there and to make it a more comfortable setting for them to ask questions,” he said. “I hope it sends the message to state workers that we are trying to solve this problem in a bipartisan manner.”

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