Kentucky Supreme Court rules controversial pension reform law unconstitutional
The Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled the pension reform law passed by the legislature in 2018 to be unconstitutional.
The court ruled unanimously against Republican Governor Matt Bevin, saying the law he signed did not meet the three readings requirement. The requirement calls for the legislature to vote on the bill three times over three separate days.
"We conclude that the passage of SB 151 did not comply with the three-readings requirement," Justice Daniel J. Venters wrote in the majority opinion.
The ruling is a victory for Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, who went head-to-head against his chief political rival in the court battle. Beshear has announced he is running for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2019.
Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd previously ruled the law unconstitutional because of the three readings requirement.
Senate Bill 151 would have moved new teacher hires into a hybrid plan that puts less risk on the state but doesn't guarantee them the same benefits. Supporters say it was a necessary step to keep the pension system solvent. Kentucky's pension system is one of the worst-funded in the U.S. Opponents argued it broke a promise given to state workers.
The Republican-led efforts brought thousands of teachers to Frankfort to protest while the legislature was in session. SB 151 was originally written as a wastewater bill before it became the pension reform bill.
“A unanimous decision from the Kentucky Supreme Court that Senate Bill 151 is unconstitutional sends a clear message to Matt Bevin and Republican lawmakers: you can’t change a sewer bill in the middle of the night and use it to flush the retirement benefits of our teachers, police, firefighters and other state workers at the last minute with no public input," Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Ben Self said.
GOP leaders were critical of the high court's ruling, saying it could have far-reaching negative consequences.
“The chaos the Supreme Court’s overreach into the legislative branch has brought upon the legislative process will have ramifications far beyond SB 151, imperiling hundreds of bills passed using the same process and bringing a grinding halt to the ability of the General Assembly to pass compromise legislation late in session," Republican Party of Kentucky Chairman Mac Brown said.
Justice Laurance B. VanMeter wrote in a concurring opinion sharing similar concerns regarding the three readings requirement.
"Certainly, a concern exists that returning to § 46’s plain language may
call into question the validity of many laws," VanMeter said.
The state's pension system remains a problem for the Commonwealth, as Kentucky is at least $38 billion short of the money it needs to pay benefits over the next three decades.