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Cooperation needed on pension reform

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By Jimmy Higdon

As we move rapidly into the final days of this short session, the General Assembly has come to a major turning point. As many of you know, Kentucky faces an immense unfunded liability in our public employee pension system. Senate Bill 2, a product of a bipartisan, bicameral task force that heard from stakeholders, retirement experts, and independent researchers, was drafted to protect taxpayers, as well as current employees’ and retirees’ retirement from insolvency passed the Senate in an overwhelming bipartisan vote. (SB2 does not apply to teachers’ retirement and would not impact pensions for current employees and retirees.) 

The leadership of the House of Representatives removed any structural changes to the strained system and proposed to pay for it with revenues from expanded lottery sales, Keno, and Instant Racing instead of discussing it during the normal budget process of 2014.  It is unfortunate the House refuses to go into joint committee to discuss this critical issue. Both chambers must continue a sober discussion about this very important issue in order to save and strengthen the entire fund. 

The Senate continued its effort to protect and strengthen the retirement system by unanimously passing Senate Bill 7 that would require state lawmakers’ pension benefits to be based solely on salary earned through legislative service. This measure applies to new legislators entering the plan after July 1 of this year. It includes a provision that would allow former and current legislators the option of having their pension benefits calculated the same way.  

The Senate turned its attention again to education this week by passing two bills aimed at helping high school students get a jump start on their college degree. Senate Bill 61 would give motivated and prepared students the ability to graduate from high school early, with an Early Graduation Scholarship certificate, in addition to their high school diploma. This measure would provide that state funds normally used for the student’s senior year in high school be used to pay toward their first year of college. As an added incentive for early graduation, Senate Bill 64, which I sponsored, would provide a student who graduates in three years with Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES) award for their fourth year of high school.  Rewarding our brightest and most motivated high-school students will put them on an early path for college success.

Voting is the foundation of our democracy. Senate Bill 1 makes it easier for military and those Kentuckians living abroad to receive election ballots. Especially for our servicemen and woman, voting is a particularly meaningful action that we stateside should do everything we can to make easy and available. Electronically transmitting the ballot gets the ballot in the hands of voters earlier so it can be filled out and returned on a timely basis.  

The Senate took important steps toward preserving the Constitutional principles embodied in the Second Amendment this week, specifically with the passage of Senate Bill 150. This measure would remove the “red tape” for obtaining a concealed carry license for law abiding residents by reducing the amount of time state police have to approve or deny an application for a license from 90 to 60 days, as well as waiving the residency requirement for our men and women stationed in Kentucky serving in the armed forces.

This week, the Senate passed a bill that would give Kentucky citizens the opportunity to vote in 2014 on whether to change the Kentucky Constitution to hold statewide office elections in even years, the same years as Presidential and other federal elections.  The savings to the state would be an estimated $1.4 million and to the counties an estimated $12.6 million in 2015 and subsequent odd-year elections. This legislation is about fiscal responsibility, as well as civic engagement, with voter participation estimated to increase by 30 percent. This measure would allow existing state and county revenue to be used for more productive programs and services.

I’ll keep you informed on the work of this committee and others during the final 13 days of this Regular Session. Your input is invaluable, so please call me in Frankfort toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 or my home at (270) 692-6945 if you have any questions, concerns, or comments.