Dose of transparency could regain some public trust of legislators on pension reform

Published 10:08 am Thursday, November 9, 2017

The State Journal

Already faced with the difficult task of reforming Kentucky’s woefully underfunded pension system, the state legislature isn’t doing itself any favors.

The revelation of a sexual harassment settlement led to the resignation of House Speaker Jeff Hoover. Gov. Matt Bevin’s pension proposal drew a crowd of hundreds to protest at the Capitol steps. Then, we learned this week that members of the Kentucky House violated the Open Meetings Act by holding a closed meeting with a quorum present.

The Kentucky attorney general Monday released a ruling in favor of the Lexington Based Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government, which argued that the House impermissibly met privately in August to discuss pension reform.

The House responded by saying the majority and minority caucuses were invited to the meeting. Both entities are exempt from the Open Meetings Law, the House argued. State law dictates that any non-standing committee be exempt from the state’s Open Meetings Law. Because both caucuses are not standing committees, they are exempt, the House argued.

But the argument doesn’t stand up to even the smallest scrutiny. A combination of the majority and minority caucuses sounds to a reasonable observer like a description of the Kentucky House of Representatives. It stands to reason that even a few Democrats joining a GOP meeting eliminates the ability to claim the caucus exemption.

The attorney general agreed.

“If invitations were extended to all members, regardless of party affiliation, then, by definition, the meeting was not a caucus meeting,” the written opinion stated, quoting prior rulings.

The attorney general’s opinion can be appealed to circuit court if the House so chooses. However, this week’s decision adds fuel to the fiery arguments made by teachers and other state employees that their positions are not being seriously considered.

Instead of holding open discussions about the matter, the House met privately to discuss a solution to the most significant problem plaguing state government.

Perhaps releasing audio or a transcript of the meeting would remedy the violation of the Open Meetings Act. The Bluegrass Institute has suggested just that. But what’s to stop other bits of vital discussion from occurring behind closed doors? Final details of legislation often don’t emerge until legislators release a bill, but the state’s multi-billion-dollar pension problem is not a small matter that can be decided on in private. The back-and-forth on vital matters such as pension reform demand a public conversation.

As the legislature deals with fallout from a sexual harassment scandal, a small commitment to transparency could be an important step to improving public trust. The Kentucky General Assembly should hold public meetings about pension reform and gather as much input as possible in order to reduce or eliminate negative impacts on employees.