FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Judges and circuit court clerks could get their first raises in more than a decade, but only if lawmakers pass an overhaul to the public pension system that has prompted fierce opposition from public workers.
The Republican-controlled state Senate unveiled the first part of its two-year spending proposal Tuesday. It would make at least $8.2 million available for raises to judges and circuit court clerks, which are both elected positions in Kentucky.
But that money would be available only if lawmakers pass two other bills that would make sweeping changes to the public pension system. Those bills have stalled, mostly because of fierce opposition from teachers. The pension proposal would reduce the annual raises for retired teachers, who do not receive Social Security benefits.
"Hopefully we can find a way to make it work," said Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel, chairman of the Senate's budget committee.
Democrats have vowed to vote against the pension changes, but most say they support raises for judges and circuit clerks. Democratic Sen. Robin Webb called the proposal "extortion."
"To hold an issue hostage dependent on another that's not been properly vetted ... I'm not going to do that," she said.
Tuesday was the first day the Senate released their version of a state spending plan to keep the government running for the next two years. A Senate committee advanced spending plans for the legislative and judicial branch Tuesday morning. Another meeting is scheduled at 11 a.m. to vote on the executive branch budget, which includes most of state spending.
The House of Representatives passed its version of the budget earlier this month. Both versions of the judicial branch budget would give raises to non-elected judicial workers by allowing the court system to increase civil filing fees.
But the House version does not include raises for judges or circuit court clerks, who have not received a raise in about a decade, according to Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. Kentucky's judicial salaries rank 48th out of 50 states, according to a 2017 survey by the National Center for State Courts.
"The lack of progress on this issue has left our judges feeling discouraged and undervalued," Minton told lawmakers last year during his State of the Judiciary speech. "The longer we postpone action, the more difficult it will be to catch up on lost wages and avoid diminishing the quality of the Kentucky judiciary."
The Senate version of the judicial budget also eliminated borrowing for judicial construction projects. And the proposal does not contribute anything to the judicial and legislative retirement systems. It's unclear what the Senate plans to do with the rest of that money, with McDaniel promising more details later.
"The judicial form retirement plan is the best funded plan in the commonwealth," McDaniel said. "It's important to invest where you need it the most. The judicial form plan is simply not the place we need it the most."