FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky’s House Democrats held an election-year special meeting on Tuesday in an attempt to change the narrative on a complex campaign issue Republicans have used to target them for months.
Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo and most of the chamber’s 53 Democrats discussed the state’s struggling public pension systems, which have a combined debt of more than $30 billion. Compounding the problem was a bad year on the stock market, where investments for the Kentucky Retirement Systems and the Kentucky Teachers Retirement system both lost money.
“What the hell are we doing in those hedge funds?” Democratic state Rep. Jim Wayne asked angrily during a presentation on the pension system by a staff member for the Legislative Research Commission.
Republicans boycotted the meeting, calling it a charade. Republicans made the pension system their top priority during the budget negotiations in the past legislative session, while Democrats focused more on funding for public education.
“Today, Greg Stumbo and House Democrats made a mockery of state government,” House Republican leader Jeff Hoover said in a news release. “Kentucky taxpayers picked up the $30,000 tab for a meeting that included absolutely no new information, and in fact contained word-for-word information that has been presented in legislative committees over the past several weeks.”
Lawmakers who attended the hearing can get $188.22, plus mileage expenses. Stumbo told members after the meeting they were entitled to be paid, but would not be forced to take the money.
Stumbo said the retirement system debt is “a bipartisan problem” and added he was “deeply disappointed” with Republicans for not attending the meeting.
“There are serious investment flaws with the strategy over there,” he said.
While the two retirement systems lost money last year, both systems averaged growth of 6.9 percent over the past 20 years.
Jessica Ditto, spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, said “House Democrats have failed for years to address the failing pensions of state workers and teachers and have blocked efforts at transparency.”
During budget negotiations, Democrats proposed putting $1.12 billion toward the pension system while Republicans proposed $1.19 billion, plus an additional $250 million in a savings account. The two sides eventually settled on $1.15 billion with an additional $125 million set aside for future use.
Democrats have proposed borrowing $3.3 billion to temporarily fix the teacher’s retirement system, but Republicans refused out of concern it would only add to the state’s debt. The state Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, tried to pass a bill requiring the pension systems to disclose more information about itself while giving the governor more control, only to be blocked by House Democrats.