Lawmakers pass pensions, military voting bills

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Associated Press

Posted on March 27, 2013 at 10:01 AM

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Lawmakers late Tuesday passed a pension reform bill to protect the retirement plans of state workers, and approved a measure that would ensure Kentucky soldiers deployed overseas would get to vote in elections back home.

They also passed a measure allowing a Christians-only health care plan to resume operations in Kentucky.

But they were unable to agree in the final hours of the 2013 legislative session on proposals that would have drawn new political boundaries around state House districts and that would have deregulated the state's landline telephone service.

Gov. Steve Beshear and a bipartisan group of legislative leaders boasted that they had gotten the biggest chore done — shoring up a pension system that had become so financially troubled that it had weakened Kentucky's credit rating.

The legislation would provide nearly $100 million a year to make the state's required contribution to the pension plans of state government employees. It also would create a 401(k)-like retirement plan for new employees in an effort to protect the pension plans of current employees and retirees.

"We did what our constituents wanted us to do; we came together in a bipartisan manner and solved the problem," House Speaker Greg Stumbo said at a press conference after the bill passed. "Not every government that's divided along political lines has to end up in gridlock."

Beshear, a Democrat, and legislative leaders had been trying for the past three weeks to develop a revenue bill that rank-and-file lawmakers would support.

What they ended up with was a 228-page bill that tweaked the state's tax code to generate some $63 million while pulling another $33 million from other sources to cover the state's annual contributions to the pension plans. The plan specifically requires the Legislature to provide the state's full annual contributions.

In the final minutes before adjournment, the House and Senate quickly passed a measure to allow soldiers to receive ballots via the Internet. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the state's chief election official, had pressed for the legislation. She said about 300 overseas ballots arrived back in Kentucky too late to be counted in last year's elections.

Lawmakers also worked out an agreement to allow Florida-based Medi-Share to resume operations in Kentucky. The Christian ministry would be exempt from state insurance regulations. A Franklin County Circuit Court judge ordered the ministry to shut down last year at the Kentucky Insurance Department's request.

The ministry had served about 800 people in Kentucky, all of whom had been required to pledge not to smoke, drink, use drugs or have sex outside of marriage.

Lawmakers were unable to get the House redistricting plan passed.

Always a divisive issue, redistricting is supposed to occur every 10 years to account for population changes captured by the U.S. Census Bureau. Kentucky had major population shifts between 2000 and 2010, requiring reconfiguration of legislative districts in both the House and Senate.

The Kentucky Supreme Court struck down legislators' first effort last year, finding that the proposed districts weren't balanced by population and didn't comply with the federal and state "one person, one vote" mandate.

The Senate had opted to wait until next year's legislative session to deal with redistricting, and decided not to act on the House-approved plan this year. Senate leaders said they wanted to pass both plans at the same time.

Lawmakers also were unable to agree on a bill that would have relaxed requirements that telephone companies provide landline service to all Kentucky residents. AT&T said the bill would have allowed phone companies to invest more in wireless and Internet services in rural areas. But some feared the bill could have left some rural residents without phone service, especially in remote and sparsely populated communities.

One of the final actions lawmakers took Tuesday night was to override the governor's veto of a bill intended to protect the religious beliefs of Kentuckians from government intrusions.

Beshear vetoed the measure on Friday, saying that while he values religious freedom, the bill went too far. He had been under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky and other groups to veto the measure that they contend could allow people to discriminate against gays, lesbians and others in the name of religion.

Church groups had urged lawmakers to override the veto, saying Kentucky should be allowed to join 16 other states that provide similar protections for people of faith.

But many lawmakers said the bill would provide a higher level of legal protection in court than already exists on the federal level and in at least 16 states.

The Legislature also approved a measure that would allow Kentucky to quickly license hemp growers if the federal government ever lifts a ban on the crop.

Once a politically taboo idea, growing hemp has become an increasingly popular idea among Kentucky's elected leaders. Senate Republicans pushed the legislation, which was initially frowned upon by House Democrats.

Hemp thrived in Kentucky generations ago but has been banned for decades since the federal government classified it as a controlled substance related to marijuana.

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