Wednesday, April 26, 2000

Voters get tired of excuses




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        Jack Westwood wasn't the only member of the Kentucky General Assembly who unwittingly voted for legislation that will increase lawmakers' pensions. Not even close.

        But the Erlanger Republican is certainly going to be singled out for making what could turn out to be a vote that haunts him to the Nov. 7 election.

        The legislation was an amendment to a bill dealing with pensions for judges. The amendment was filed by Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, in the last few hours of the legislative session.

        Whether by coincidence or design, the amendment was confusing and didn't really portray the true impact of the legislation. Lawmakers never want to be seen as trying to milk taxpayers for more dough.

        The amendment flew through both chambers with more than 90 votes in the House and only six “no” votes in the 38-member, Republican-controlled Senate.

        It wasn't until a few days after the session ended April 14 that questions arose about Mr. Robinson's amendment. It turned out the bill increases pensions for lawmakers by as much as 100 percent, according to an estimate from Gov. Paul Patton's office.

        When the story hit the papers, most lawmakers — even Mr. Robinson — pleaded ignorance and claimed they weren't aware of the bill's true effect. Mr. Patton said he had legislators from all over the state calling him and members of his administration to find out exactly what the bill did.

        Mr. Patton at first said he was going to veto the bill because “somebody tried to sneak it through” during the final days. He then ended up signing it because the main portion of the bill dealt with judicial retirement, and nobody wants angry judges.

        Mr. Westwood was honest when asked about the bill, admitting he didn't fully understand what he was voting for. There were dozens of bills filed and voted on during the session's final days; and besides, Mr. Robinson's amendment was “obscure and hard to find,” Mr. Westwood said. Many other lawmakers had pretty much the same take.

        But Mr. Westwood said the same thing toward the end of the 1996 session, when he and lots of other lawmakers voted for another confusing piece of legislation that increased the salaries of some county officials by as much as 50 percent.

        Well, now Mr. Westwood has a re-election campaign to run. Independence Democrat Jaimie Henson is challenging him in what will easily be the hottest Statehouse race in Northern Kentucky this fall.

        And the Democrats are loading up.

        “This is the second time Jack Westwood has admitted publicly he's asleep at the switch,” said Kenton County Democratic Chairwoman Shirely Huelsmann.

        “He's guilty of either greed or incompetence. Either way, the voters ought to show him the door in November.”

        Mr. Westwood will also take some heat for saying that while he wouldn't necessarily vote to increase legislators' pensions, he does think doing so would help attract more qualified people to Frankfort.

        “Jack Westwood is living proof that we need better people in the General Assembly,” Mrs. Huelsmann said.

        It's not the scandal the year. But it's not going to go away, either. The Democrats will make sure of that.

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics for The Kentucky Enquirer. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at (859) 578-5581, or 502-875-7526 in Frankfort, or by e-mail at crowleys@cinci.infi.net.