Kentucky pension bill stalls as key Republican faces sexual harassment claims

Kentucky pension bill stalls as key Republican faces sexual harassment claims
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A delicate proposal to tackle one of the nation’s most troubled state employee pension plans is in flux after a senior Kentucky Republican abandoned his leadership position in the face of sexual harassment allegations.

The Republican, Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover, said Sunday he would bow to mounting political pressure to step down, a day after Gov. Matt Bevin (R) called on him to quit his post. Hoover will remain in the state House.

“I do not want the story to be about me versus someone else,” Hoover said in an emotional news conference Sunday. “It’s not fair to my caucus members. It’s not fair to the legislative process that I have worked so hard to improve. And it’s not conducive to getting problems solved and addressing the issues facing us.”

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Local newspapers last week reported that Hoover and three other legislators had settled sexual harassment claims brought by a staffer in his leadership office. Hoover has denied wrongdoing, but on Sunday he admitted to exchanging explicit texts with the staffer.

“These alleged actions, which haven’t been denied, are reprehensible, indefensible and unacceptable,” Bevin said Saturday. “Any elected official or state employee who has settled a sexual harassment claim should resign immediately.”

Beyond the harassment claims, there is an undercurrent of politics running through the feud between Bevin and Hoover, the first Republican to serve as state House Speaker in nearly a century.

Bevin, Hoover and Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers (R) last month unveiled the outlines of a deal to curb the state’s skyrocketing pension costs. 

The deal would have paid off tens of billions in unfunded pension liabilities for school teachers and retired state employees, in part by requiring public employees to pay a larger share of their retirement costs. Current retirees would have given up five years of cost-of-living adjustments, and state employees hired after the middle of next year would have been moved off a pension system and into a private 401(k) plan.

Kentucky’s public employee pension system has greater unfunded liabilities than all but three other states, according to Moody’s Investors Services, which closely tracks state pension systems. Moody’s said the Bevin proposal would close much of the gap over the next several years.

Public employees railed against the proposed agreement, and last week Hoover and top House Republicans said they were no longer confident they had the votes to pass the bill. That enraged Bevin and Stivers, who both thought Hoover was reneging on a deal, according to sources in Frankfort, Ky.

Bevin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Then came reports of Hoover’s misbehavior, another in a series of scandals that have engulfed state legislatures across the country as women have come forward to report instances of sexual harassment and assault.

Hoover, fighting for his political life last week, said the calls for his resignation were politically motivated by the pension fight.

“One must wonder why [Bevin] is so motivated to attack us unless his goal is to remove a voice that dares on occasion to disagree with him as I have done when he has made unnecessary statements attacking our teachers, state workers and retirees who are simply looking for better solutions to very serious problems facing our state,” Hoover said Saturday.

Top state Republicans huddled with strategists close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.), who was instrumental in helping his party regain control of the state legislature, last week to determine how to handle allegations against Hoover. 

Those leaders explored the possibility of launching their own investigation, outside of Hoover’s jurisdiction.

It was not immediately clear Monday if that investigation would continue, even with Hoover staying in the House.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said Monday it is investigating reports of sexual harassment in the state legislature.