Thursday, June 22, 2000

Pension hike gets political

Dems target Westwood

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ERLANGER — The growing controversy over a proposal to greatly increase the retirement benefits of state lawmakers is continuing to gnaw at the re-election campaign of Erlanger Republican Sen. Jack Westwood.

        Kenton County Democrats are hammering on Mr. Westwood for voting in favor of the pension raise, which Republican senators pushed through in the final days of the Kentucky General Assembly last April.

        Mr. Westwood responded Wednesday by accusing them of making political hay with the controversy.

        Now Kenton County Democratic Chairwoman Shirley Huelsmann is specifically challenging Mr. Westwood to renounce the legislation and ask that it not be enacted.

        “The law was passed at the last minute and was a clear attempt to sneak it through without public input,” Mrs. Huelsmann said. “Senator Westwood knew, or at least should have known, what he was voting on, and he needs to take steps to stop this money grab.”

        The issue surrounds an amendment that Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, added to a bill on judicial retirement benefits. With wording that was difficult to understand, the amendment

        raised, and in some cases doubled, lawmakers' retirement benefits.

        Mrs. Huelsmann's comments are a clear indication that the Democrats and their candidate challenging Mr. Westwood — Independence resident Jaimie Henson — will try to keep the issue alive in the 23rd District Senate race, a seat the party lost four years ago when Mr. Westwood won his first term in office.

        If Ms. Henson, a flight attendant and former Independence City Council member, were to win Mr. Westwood's seat, she could tip the Senate balance to a Democratic majority.

        Last week, Kentucky Attorney General Ben Chandler, a Demo crat, released an opinion that the law is unconstitutional and “so vague and confusing that it cannot be implemented by those who are charged with its enforcement.”

        Indeed, the Kentucky Judicial Form Retirement System, the Frankfort-based board that oversees lawmakers' pensions, voted Tuesday to let a court decide what the amendment means.

        Mrs. Henson and the Kenton County Democrats have castigated Mr. Westwood for voting for a bill that he has admitted he did not fully understand. Mr. Westwood said Tuesday that Mr. Chandlers's opinion confirms what he said about the bill in the first place.

        “I personally agree with the attorney general,” Mr. Westwood said. “It is confusing.”

        Mr. Westwood said shortly after the bill passed that he understood it dealt only with judicial retirement benefits and he was unaware of the increase in lawmakers' pensions. Several other lawmakers who voted for the bill made similar comments.

        Mrs. Huelsmann said Mr. Westwood should call on the Judicial Form Retirement System to refuse to enforce the new law.

        “I'm not about to tell an agency not to enforce the law,” Mr. Westwood said.

        “Personally, I think (Mrs. Huelsmann) is a little behind the times. We already asked (Gov. Paul Patton) to veto the bill, and he refused.”

        Mr. Patton did refuse to veto the bill, saying the legislation's main provision — creating a medical savings plan for judicial and legislative retirees who live outside Kentucky and can't take advantage of ordinary health care plans — was too important to overturn.

        Mr. Patton also said he tries not to meddle in the affairs of the other branches of government, and legislators will have to answer to voters about the pension increase and how it came about.

        “The governor could have vetoed that bill,” Mr. Westwood said. “But he didn't do that for political reasons. (The Democrats) want to use it as a campaign issue, and they will probably keep bringing it up.”


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