Austerity and the cost of the legislature

Published 10:12 am Friday, March 30, 2018

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is a financial guy. He had little political background when voters elected him over a career politician in the 2015 governor’s race.

We suspect that’s why Bevin soon recognized Kentucky’s financial situation for what it is: a disaster. He told Kentuckians the unvarnished truth about it, unlike a long list before him.

At the core of Kentucky’s woes is a long-running fraud in the management of the state’s public employee pension funds. Past governors and lawmakers lied routinely about the adequacy of funding in order to pass budgets appearing not to violate Kentucky’s constitutional prohibition against deficit spending.

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But there were indeed deficits. Today they show up as a $41-billion-plus shortfall in the pension funds.

This has forced Bevin to run the state like the head of a bondholder committee that seizes control of an overextended company. He has imposed a painful cost-cutting regimen in an effort to redirect the state’s cash flow to service the pension debt and avoid default.

Career politicians — including increasingly many nominal Republicans in the Legislature — have fought Bevin almost every step of the way. So here’s a thought for the governor: As long as we’re cutting costs, what might we do about our Legislature?

Regular readers know we have not been fans of former Republican Senate President David Williams, whom we have referred to as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). We came to that view in 2000 when Williams went on radio programs in Paducah advocating that the Legislature begin meeting every year rather than every other. A constitutional amendment to authorize that was on the 2000 ballot.

We strongly opposed the proposal editorially. It was sold on the premise that it would make the Legislature more efficient and reduce the number of special sessions. We believed — correctly as it turns out — it would do nothing of the sort.

What it did do is — and this was always the goal — create a class of career legislators, effectively doubling lawmakers’ earnings and bloating their pensions by assembling them annually in Frankfort. Today we see what this bought us.

A good start for Bevin would be to invite Kentuckians to reverse course. Ditch the every-other-year “short sessions” during which legislators routinely do such important work as listening to people dressed up as the tooth fairy expound on dental health.

Were it ours to do we wouldn’t stop there. Why have career legislators at all? Why pay them pensions and salaries large enough to live on?

It is the reason we see paralysis in the current legislative session despite one party enjoying supermajorities in both chambers. This session is not about solving the state’s biggest problems; it’s about everyone keeping their jobs.

This presents a great argument for going back to the days of citizen legislators — people who are paid only their expenses for time spent in Frankfort; who assume the office despite the inconvenience, only for a time, in service of their state.

Perhaps that is too idealistic a concept for this day and age. But we can suggest an idea that is not, and it would be a good start. Bevin should campaign for an end to annual sessions. We are confident it is an idea that at the voter level would enjoy broad bipartisan support.

The Paducah Sun