Last week, Kentucky lawmakers were focused on the state’s ailing pension systems. Gov. Matt Bevin had just released a controversial plan to switch most workers into 401(k)-style plans that drew fire from public employees.
Then, sexual harassment allegations exploded in Frankfort, implicating the Speaker of the House and other Republican lawmakers.
The scandal has taken lawmakers’ eyes off the ball on pension reform, and it’s unclear if they’ll get back on track.
Before the sexual harassment scandal began unfolding in the state legislature, the number one thing on lawmakers’ minds was this:
(Chanting) “We will not be robbed! We will not be robbed”
Hundreds of state employees, many of them teachers, gathered on the steps of the capitol in the rain to protest Gov. Matt Bevin’s plan to overhaul the state pension systems.
Current employees are concerned about how the proposal would require them to chip in an extra three percent of their salaries for the retiree health program and require them to move into a 401k-style plan after working for 27 years. Teachers would also have cost of living adjustments frozen for five years when they retire.
“It’s making me highly consider if Kentucky’s the place that I need to stay.”
That’s Jason Ross, a teacher at Leestown Middle School in Lexington.
“As much as I love Lexington, as much as I love my students, I also have to worry about when I have a family and my retirement and it doesn’t seem like the state really cares about that right now.”
But the same night as the rally, the Courier-Journal published a bombshell story. It said Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover had secretly settled a sexual harassment complaint made by a female staffer. Hoover allegedly exchanged sexually charged text messages with the woman and requested pictures.
The allegations ultimately led to his resignation from leadership on Sunday.
“I exchanged in banter, but make no mistake it was wrong on my part to do that. And for that I am truly sorry.”
Three other Republican representatives have been implicated in the scandal, though their roles are still unclear.
The still-unfolding allegations have unsettled the Republican leadership in the House, who have now launched an investigation.
And according to David Osborne, the Speaker Pro Tem who has taken over Hoover’s duties, pensions are no longer the main focus of the chamber.
“This has kind of obviously diverted a little bit of our attention. And we are not able to focus our full efforts on that right this second.”
The pension systems are still woefully underfunded and there’s still talk that the governor will call a special legislative session for lawmakers to vote on his proposal later this year.
But as House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell admitted two days after the Hoover report was published.
"This bill was in trouble before anything came out in the Courier-Journal”
And on KET, Senate President Robert Stivers admitted he wasn’t sure it was still possible for Bevin’s special session on pensions to take place after the Hoover allegations.
“I can’t say when it will be called. I still think we have time to deal with it before the end of the year. I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not been made more difficult, I’m a realist in this.”
Meanwhile, Republicans continue to get an earful from state workers and teachers about the plan.
On Tuesday evening, Republican Sen. Danny Carroll defended elements of Bevin’s plan at a Kentucky Education Association forum in Paducah attended by hundreds.
“I’ve looked at the world through your shoes, I’ve solicited input, I’ve taken the beatings to get that. Please take the time to look at the world form my shoes and all the things I have to consider” (boos)
Advocates for teachers and state employees say they want lawmakers to make changes to the state’s tax code to bring in more money before targeting the pension systems.
So far, Republicans have been reluctant to do that — out of fear it would be seen as a tax increase.