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Hoover Scandal Disrupts Pension Debate In Frankfort. Will Republicans Get Back On Track?

Before the sexual harassment scandal began unfolding in the state legislature, the number one thing on lawmakers’ minds was navigating push-back from state employees over Gov. Matt Bevin's proposal to overhaul the state's troubled pension system.

Hundreds of state employees, many of them teachers, gathered on the steps of the capitol in the rain to protest Gov. Matt Bevin’s plan,which would move most future and some current public workers into 401(k)-style retirement plans.

Current employees are concerned about how the proposal would require them to chip in an extra three percent of their salaries for the retiree health program and require them to move into a 401k-style plan after working for 27 years. Teachers would also have cost of living adjustments frozen for five years when they retire.

“It’s making me highly consider if Kentucky’s the place that I need to stay," said Jason Ross, a teacher at Leestown Middle School in Lexington who attended the rally.

“As much as I love Lexington, as much as I love my students, I also have to worry about when I have a family and my retirement and it doesn’t seem like the state really cares about that right now,” Ross said.

But the same night as the rally, Courier Journal published a bombshell story. It said Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover had secretly settled a sexual harassment complaint made by a female staffer. Hoover allegedly exchanged sexually charged text messages with the woman and requested pictures.

The allegations ultimately led to his resignation from leadership on Sunday.

Three other Republican representatives have been implicated in the scandal, though their roles are still unclear.

The still-unfolding allegations have unsettled the Republican leadership in the House, who have now launched an investigation.

And according to David Osborne, the Speaker Pro Tem who has taken over Hoover’s duties, Republicans are having trouble keeping pensions as the main focus of the chamber.

“This has kind of obviously diverted a little bit of our attention," Osborne said during a brief news conference Tuesday evening. "And we are not able to focus our full efforts on that right this second.”

The pension systems are still woefully underfunded and there’s still talk that the governor will call a special legislative session for lawmakers to vote on his proposal later this year.

But as House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell admitted two days after the Hoover report was published, "This bill was in trouble before anything came out in the Courier-Journal.”

Republicans continue to get an earful from state workers and teachers about the plan.

On Tuesday evening, Republican Sen. Danny Carroll was peppered with boos and groans as he defended elements of Bevin’s plan at a forum in Paducah attended by hundreds.

“I’ve looked at the world through your shoes, I’ve solicited input, I’ve taken the beatings to get that," Carroll said to a restless crowd.

"Please take the time to look at the world form my shoes and all the things I have to consider.”

Combined, Kentucky's pension systems have an unfunded liability ranging between $30 billion and $70 billion. Bevin says his proposal--along with increased contributions from th legislature--will help pay down that amount over the next 30 years.

But on KET, Senate President Robert Stivers said he wasn’t sure it was possible for Bevin’s special session on pensions to take place after the Hoover allegations.

“I still think we have time to deal with it before the end of the year," Stivers said. "I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s not been made more difficult, I’m a realist in this.”

Advocates for teachers and state employees say they want lawmakers to make changes to the state’s tax code to bring in more money before targeting the pension systems.

So far, Republicans have been reluctant to do that — out of fear it would be seen as a tax increase.

Matt Markgraf, news director at WKMS in Murray contributed to this report.

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