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Tensions rise as Kentucky lawmakers consider pension changes

Associated Press

A Republican state senator in Kentucky's legislature sponsored a bill this year she thought everyone would like: Make pharmacists tell patients how important it is to destroy unused prescription opioids.

The bill was supposed to come up for a vote Tuesday. But Friday, Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr told Republican leaders she would vote against a bill that would temporarily cut pension benefits for some retired teachers. By Tuesday morning, Kerr's pharmacy bill had been pulled from the schedule.

"God help us," Kerr wrote in a Facebook post that has been verified by The Associated Press. "My own leadership retaliated by turning their backs on the war on opioids."

Republican leaders say Kerr is wrong. Senate President Robert Stivers said her bill needed to be fixed so it would not create a criminal offense for pharmacists. Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer, who calls bills for a vote, said the Senate planned to vote on Kerr's bill Wednesday once it has been amended.

Stivers said there was no retaliation, noting Republicans planned to vote on a bill Tuesday sponsored by a Democrat, who also opposes the pension bill. He said he thought Kerr's comments were a product of the chaos and stress of the legislature's final days.

"People say things and I don't think a lot about them one way or another. I see them and go on," Stivers said.

Kentucky lawmakers are trying to overhaul one of the country's worst-funded public pension systems, but they have hit a wall of resistance from thousands of public school teachers emboldened by the recent successful strike in West Virginia.

The pension bill would temporarily cut annual cost-of-living raises for retired public school teachers to 1 percent from 1.5 percent. That, along with other changes, would save taxpayers $3.2 billion over the next 20 years while also pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to stabilize the system.

Teachers and other public workers oppose the bill, saying lawmakers should find more revenue instead of relying on benefit cuts and structural changes. More than a thousand teachers rallied on the state Capitol steps Monday night, and hundreds more have showed up to protest in recent days as lawmakers conducted business.

The pressure has made it difficult for Republican leaders to round up votes for the bill, especially in an election year. On Friday, the Senate canceled plans to vote on the pension bill because they did not have the required votes. The slow progress has frustrated Gov. Matt Bevin and other Republican leaders, who have just 11 legislative days left in the session.

It's not unusual for lawmakers to hold bills hostage in the waning days of the legislative session in the hopes of pressuring people for votes. Three years ago, Republican Sen. C.B. Embry killed a bill written by some high school students in an effort to pass a transgender bathroom bill.

But it is not common for lawmakers to complain about the practice publicly, as Kerr did on Tuesday.

"I'm very distressed with my leadership," Kerr told The Associated Press in an interview.

Tension about the retirement bill also spilled over into the House, where a group of police officer widows said lawmakers there were holding up a bill about line-of-duty death benefits because the police officers' union did not support the pension bill.

"I know my husband would be livid if he knew this was happening," said Ashley Rodman, whose husband Nick Rodman, was killed last year while on the job as a police officer in Louisville.

Nicolai Jilek, president of the River City Fraternal Order of Police, said lawmakers have told him the line-of-duty death benefits bill would not pass unless they supported the pension bill. He did not name them, but said he was "sick and tired of the games being played."

Rodman was among a handful of women who approached Republican Rep. Steven Rudy after he adjourned a legislative committee meeting without calling the bill for a vote. Rudy agreed to meet with them. He told reporters after the meeting he was working on some changes to the line-of-duty benefits bill, adding it was "possible" it could pass this session.

"There is no retaliation," Rudy said. "I'm not punishing anyone. I'm trying to work to shape good policy."

It's unclear when or if the pension bill will come up for a vote. Lawmakers have sent the bill back to a committee. The committee is supposed to meet Wednesday, but the bill is not on the agenda.

Asked if the bill will pass this session, Thayer said: "I don't know. I hope so."

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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Nicolai Jilek and to say he is president of the River City Fraternal Order of Police.

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