By Randy Patrick
Jimmy Higdon has been in the state legislature for a decade, and every session he’s been involved in, lawmakers have parted on the last day with harsh words and hurt feelings.
This year it was different.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever left with a smile on my face,” the
Republican state senator said Thursday, two days after the end of the 2013 Regular Session.
David Floyd, Nelson County’s Republican state representative, felt the same way. In the past, he said, legislators were always glad the session was over and were looking ahead to a special session because they didn’t get done what they needed to do.
“This time it was a good feeling,” Floyd said.
After a break, the legislature resumed Monday for the two days set aside to override vetoes by the governor. But several legislative proposals were unresolved. What was unusual this time was how many of the most high-profile proposals passed in those last hours: Pension reform. Religious freedom. Hemp licensing. Military overseas voting. Liquor sales on Election Day.
All went down to the wire, but lawmakers were able to work out compromises and get them passed.
“About 11 o’clock when things started going well, all these bills that had been held hostage started moving,” Higdon said.
Higdon said he thinks that signifies a new attitude in Frankfort since former Republican Senate President David Williams of Burkesville left to accept a judgeship. And he credited two men in particular for the change: the current Republican Senate president, Robert Stivers of Manchester, and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
Toward the end of the session, the governor was heavily involved in negotiating and getting bills passed, he said.
Floyd agreed. That was especially evident, he said, on the pension bill.
The Republicans in the House had passed a pension plan, created by an independent task force, to put the state and local government employees’ under-funded pension system on a path toward solvency. But the Democratic caucus in the House didn’t want to replace the defined benefits plan with a defined contributions plan — similar to a 401k, and balked — even though the governor favored it, he explained.
“I think the press was a big factor in that because they saw the truth of what was happening,” Floyd said. It became clear to constituents it was the Democrats in the House who were blocking reform.
Higdon said the pension bill is far from perfect, but “it’s a good bill.”
“If we did nothing, in four years, the system would be broke, and we would be on a pay-as-you-go system,” the senator said.
The final legislation closely resembles what the task force recommended and the Senate passed. It is a defined contributions plan, but guarantees employees a minimum return four percent. In years that their return exceeds four percent, part of the money will go into a pool to make up the difference in years when it falls below that amount. The bill also provides funding through tax changes and allows cost-of-living increases to be paid out of the general fund, but not the pension fund.
Another much-debated bill that passed in the last two days was a proposal to strengthen religious freedom. Lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto of the bill, which had been opposed by gay rights groups because they believed it would allow discrimination against homosexuals.
But that hasn’t been the experience of states with similar laws, Floyd said. For example, he cited a case in a state with a religious freedom law where an apartment building owner refused to rent to a gay couple and lost in court.
“Nobody’s civil rights will be infringed,” Floyd said.
Higdon agreed. “I’m sure that’s a concern, but I don’t think it will happen,” he said. “Really, I don’t see this as a gay rights issue.”
The bill offers some protection for people who refuse to obey laws based on sincerely held religious beliefs. It arose last year because Amish farmers went to jail rather than put orange triangular reflectors on their buggies.
The law requires government to have a clear, compelling interest in overriding someone’s religious beliefs, and it must resolve the problem in the least restrictive manner. In the case of local fairness ordinances, government has a compelling interest in protecting civil rights, Higdon explained.
Higdon and Floyd supported the pension and religious freedom bills and the hemp bill. They were surprised it passed about 11 p.m. Tuesday.
The legislation would allow the state to license farmers to grow hemp for fiber and other purposes if the federal government distinguishes between hemp and marijuana.
Both lawmakers were disappointed some bills didn’t get through, such as a pro-life bill Higdon sponsored and a bill to strengthen penalties against selling heroin. Floyd was dismayed by the failure of his proposal that would have ended “reciprocity” for legislators’ pensions — the practice of basing pensions on lawmakers’ last three years of state service. Toward the end of their careers, some legislators accept appointments to higher-paying jobs so they earn higher pensions.
Despite those disappointments, Floyd and Higdon were both pleased with the session overall, they said.