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House speaker dismisses chances for quick pension agreement

Kentucky capitol
Posted at 3:20 PM, Feb 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-04 16:27:45-05

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne on Monday dismissed chances for a quick agreement to change one of the country's worst-funded public pension systems as state lawmakers prepare to resume this year's legislative session.

With lawmakers set to reconvene Tuesday in Frankfort after a nearly monthlong break, Osborne told a business group that the General Assembly ultimately will find a solution that meets the policy, political and legal tests surrounding the complex problem.

But he bluntly downplayed prospects for a quick breakthrough on an issue that overshadowed last year's legislative session.

"Anyone that thinks that we will have a quick agreement on this issue is wrong," he told a gathering of Greater Louisville Inc., the metro chamber of commerce in Kentucky's largest city. "I do not believe that an agreement is going to be found quickly. It is simply the truth.

"This continues to be, from both a policy and political standpoint, the most divisive and the most controversial issue that we have dealt with in modern history in Frankfort."

Lawmakers hit the reset button on the pension issue before leaving the state Capitol last month for the extended break. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has worked on the issue since then and will continue its efforts in coming weeks, Osborne said Monday.

The group was tasked with reviewing the pension systems structure, costs, benefits and funding with a goal of coming up with a proposal that can pass the Republican-controlled legislature with bipartisan support. Osborne didn't offer a timetable for a possible agreement on the issue.

Republicans introduced a massive pension overhaul proposal heading into last year's legislative session. They were able to force through a pension bill over stiff resistance from Democratic lawmakers. But it prompted protests from thousands of teachers who closed schools in more than 30 districts across the state.

Late last year, the state Supreme Court struck that pension law down on procedural grounds. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called the legislature back in session to pass a version of the bill again, but lawmakers could not reach an agreement and adjourned.

Kentucky's pension systems are at least $39 billion short of what's required to pay benefits over the next three decades, making them among the worst-funded public retirement plans in the country. Bevin, who is seeking re-election this year, has ranked the pension system as the most important issue facing the state.

Osborne noted the stakes are high as lawmakers try to change a pension system marred by problems that accumulated for many years.

"People who have planned their lives, who have planned their retirements, are counting on these benefits," he said.

He said the state owes an obligation to those people who have "committed their lives to the commonwealth."

Osborne said he's hoping that lawmakers move ahead on the pension issue without the harsh statements that accompanied last year's efforts.

"We will lead on this issue without the divisive rhetoric that has clouded it for the last year," he said. "And we will demand the same of others."

Osborne said he hopes lawmakers also take up other issues in the next couple of months, including school safety legislation, a follow-up to last year's tax code overhaul and an effort to revamp Kentucky's welfare system.

This year's legislative session is scheduled to conclude in late March.