By State Representative Lisa Willner, House District 35
“It ain’t over till it’s over.” While the late, great Yogi Berra uttered that phrase as a reminder to keep hope alive, I’m using it here as a warning and a plea.
As public attention has turned away from state politics and on to March Madness, many friends and neighbors have congratulated me on surviving my first legislative session. While grateful for the supportive intent of those good wishes, I am quick to point out that one day of the session still remains, and that there is still much at stake.
There is still substantial damage that can be done in the final day of the 2019 General Assembly. Public engagement and stakeholder voice may be the only way to prevent it. There’s still time and an urgent need for the public to make phone calls, send emails, schedule appointments and show up at the Capitol.
Specifically at risk: retirement security for thousands of working Kentuckians, the future solvency of Kentucky’s public pensions, and the public health and social safety net for vulnerable people across our Commonwealth.
Kentucky’s public pension debt, the General Assembly’s role in underfunding it, and possible solutions have been dominating headlines for years now. These are complicated issues, but the decisions my colleagues and I make on this issue this Thursday can impact every community in Kentucky, not just Kentucky’s public workers.
In a wise move early in the session, House and Senate leadership established a bipartisan Public Pension Working Group to study the state of our public pensions in depth, and to take time as needed through December of this year to meet publicly and transparently, to consider stakeholder input and to deliver recommendations for action in the 2020 budget session.
This bipartisan group should and must be given the time and resources to do this work on behalf of the people of this Commonwealth.
Unfortunately, some of my colleagues want to take a different route. House Bill 358, a bill that would give public universities the option to exit the Kentucky Employees’ Retirement System (KERS), passed the House despite warnings from financial and legal experts that the bill would put retirement security at grave risk for many employees, and would violate the inviolable contract for thousands of public employees.
We’ve been down this road before.
Nevertheless, when HB 358 made its way to the Senate, that body took a problematic bill and transformed it into an outright dangerous one. The Senate version would still permit public universities to opt out of the public retirement system (KERS), and would all but require that “quasi-governmental” agencies – community mental health centers, domestic violence shelters, child advocacy organizations, rape crisis centers, and all 61 health departments statewide – exit the public retirement system altogether. The Senate version of HB 358 threatens the very existence of these lifeline organizations, and could effectively dismantle the statewide system of public protection and crisis support.
This change expands the number of Kentucky workers who will have their inviolable contracts broken to upwards of 9,000.
These are workers who are on the front lines of fighting Kentucky’s hepatitis A epidemic, treating substance abuse disorders and mental health crises, advocating on behalf of neglected and abused children, and providing shelter and services to victims of rape and domestic violence. Breaking their contract and stealing their retirement security not only hurts these workers, but endangers the lives and well-being of the hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians who benefit from their services.
Recognizing the dangers posed to public health and safety by the Senate’s version of HB 358, the House rejected the Senate’s extreme changes. The House then operated in a bipartisan – and nearly unanimous way – to keep the social safety net up and running until the Public Pension Working Group makes its recommendations. Those House-proposed changes to Senate Bill 41 would prevent another round of violating workers’ contracts, protracted legal proceedings, and the collapse of the safety net programs.
Legislators have a choice to make when we return to Frankfort on Thursday. We can operate in a good faith, bipartisan, and transparent manner by agreeing to offer temporary relief to the agencies providing frontline services to so many. If the Senate accepts the House’s bipartisan changes to SB 41, we can allow the Public Pension Working Group to continues its important work of examining the issues, consulting, with stakeholders, and gathering public input through a thoughtful, transparent, and deliberate process.
Or, we in the House can back down, and choose to approve the dangerous Senate version of HB 358 in the final day of the session. To do so would mean knowingly passing legislation that violates the contracts of frontline workers, endangers healthcare access in every corner of Kentucky, and puts the long-term sustainability of safety net programs – and those they serve – at grave risk.
The Senate majority leadership and the governor are already putting considerable pressure on State Representatives to choose the second option. Senate leaders are on record threatening to refuse to hear SB 41 on the last day of the session, despite its broad bipartisan support, and the near certainty that it would pass the Senate if called for a vote. If the House version of SB 41 were approved by the Senate, there is still a risk that the Governor could veto this commonsense approach to preserving the social safety net. Still, that threat should not deter legislators from doing what’s right, and people have a right to expect and demand better of their elected governor and other public officials.
Fortunately, I was not elected to represent the interests of the governor or Senate leadership, since I do not believe their current priorities are in the best interest of Kentucky and the future of all Kentuckians.
We have a tough fight ahead of us this week, but “it ain’t over till it’s over.” The final chapter of the 2019 General Assembly has not yet been written, and public engagement could well determine the outcome. I encourage you to stay engaged with your legislators – through phone calls, social media contacts, face-to-face appointments, and by showing up at your state Capitol – the People’s House! – until the very end.
State Rep. Lisa Willner is serving her first term in the Kentucky General Assembly, representing Louisville’s House District 35. She previously served on the Jefferson County Board of Education.