It would be ironic if state Senate President David Williams were absent from upcoming discussions of pension reform because his own retirement package has been enhanced by a judicial appointment back home in southern Kentucky.
There’s speculation that Gov. Steve Beshear might nominate the Republican leader from Burkesville to a circuit judgeship for Cumberland, Clinton and Monroe counties. The Lexington Herald-leader reported that Beshear did not rule out the possibility in responding to reporters’ questions this week.
If it does happen, Williams would qualify for big rewards under the infamous 2005 law upgrading the retirement benefits of legislators who progress from part-time status in the General Assembly to periods of full-time service elsewhere in state government. In 2009, former Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, padded his anticipated pension by at least $37,500 a year by accepting a circuit judge appointment. Former Sen. Charlie Borders, R-Russell, made an identical gain by taking an appointment to the Public Service Commission.
So why does a Democratic governor grant political opponents lucrative positions in public service? Maybe it’s because he really does believe they’ll make superior judges and board members. Or maybe he’s just overjoyed to kick upstairs Republican nemeses who undercut his political agenda.
In 2009, when Beshear made the Kelly and Borders appointments, he was in the midst of a crusade, fruitless thus far, to expand gambling in Kentucky. He’d made a measure of progress in the House but was stymied by Williams’ control of the Republican-dominated Senate. If he could facilitate the replacement of Senate Republicans with more cooperative Democrats, he might enjoy more success. In fact, a Democrat did win Borders’ former seat, but casinos have remained a no-go in the commonwealth.
Williams at the time professed to be incensed by what he called the governor’s “poisoning” of the political process. “Everybody knows what the governor’s motive is,” he grumbled, “and that is to take out any Republicans he has and replace them not just with Democrats, but with Democrats who will commit to vote for slot machines.” Wonder if he’d be as irate over his own buyout.
The gambling debate subsided after Beshear’s repeated failure to push enabling legislation through the legislature. But pension reform is hotter than ever with the Kentucky Retirement Systems facing an unfunded liability as high as $30 billion when teachers, police, local government workers and others protected by the public umbrella are included in the mix with state workers.
Williams has been a big proponent of a 401(k)-style retirement plan for public employees. It’s gone nowhere, but might get a boost if the pension reform task force recommends something of the sort for consideration in a future legislative session. Public workers are generally better off with the guaranteed pensions they now have and likely would not be pleased to see the Senate president’s perks embellished while their own diminish.
Williams has dodged questions about his interest in a judicial appointment, and the governor said only that he’d consider any three people chosen by a nominating commission. Pension reform could come up in the 2013 regular session or in a special session as Beshear deems necessary.