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Session's first week: the good, the bad and the ugly

By JIM WATERS The Bluegrass Institute

The classic main theme from Sergio Leone's spaghetti western "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" serves as appropriate background music while perusing this column about the first week of the 2014 session of the Kentucky General Assembly.

The Good: Pension reform is not dead.

After exaggerated claims about the feeble pension reform bill passed during last year's legislative session, I was concerned that even lawmakers supportive of additional reforms might not be willing to touch the politically toxic issue - especially during an election year.

However, Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said during a Louisville talk radio program on the eve of this year's session that he was going to join Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, in an effort to make the Kentucky Retirement System transparent.

"Right now, taxpayers have no idea what the pensions are for any state employee or legislator," Thayer said.

Thayer also said shining the light on the system - thus revealing previously heretofore unknown shenanigans to taxpayers and voters - would make future significant reforms more possible.

It's hard to imagine what good reason House leaders have for dragging their feet on making the information regarding pensions available to the taxpayers who foot the bill.

The Bad: House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has launched an all-out populist policy campaign by making a whopping minimum wage hike from Kentucky's current $7.25 to $10.10 an hour his legislative priority.

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover may have been more right than even he knew, labeling the proposal a "redistribution of wealth."

A new National Bureau of Economic Research study cites research indicating that a majority of the redistribution that occurs with forced minimum wage increases is not from the wealthy to lower-skilled workers, which is how supporters try to sell the idea. Rather, it's from families in- or nearly in - poverty to other workers in the same position.

In fact, forcing a minimum wage hike on business owners causes some families to actually fall into poverty as family members lose jobs cut by employers forced to raise wages.

According to the Employment Policies Institute, 645,000 entry level jobs were lost when Congress raised the national minimum wage by just 50 cents an hour in 1996 - and that was during a robust economy, something Kentucky certainly doesn't have right now.

Does the House Democratic leadership really consider policies like raising the minimum wage by nearly $3 an hour the great answer to the Bluegrass State's economic revival?

The Ugly: Anybody who believes in the freedom of speech - one of our most precious rights - must be disappointed in the way Gov. Steve Beshear concluded his State of the Commonwealth speech.

"Fueled by social media and talk radio, we're losing the ability to listen," Beshear said. "We're losing the ability to treat each other's opinions with respect and to overcome differences. My friends, we must resolve not to let that happen here in Kentucky. We must remember that we are Kentuckians first and Democrats and Republicans second."

Are you kidding me?

This is how the governor leading a state with a tradition of vigorous political debate and the annual Fancy Farm spectacle - with its rank partisanship and where the ultimate goal is to literally shout down and find the most creative ways possible to demean your political opponents - ends his speech?

Perhaps the governor singled out talk radio and the social media because those are the entities most willing to staunchly and persistently oppose his big-spending agenda of expanding Medicaid and bringing Obamacare to Kentuckians' checkbooks while failing to lead a genuine economic revival.

That should tell you a lot about the state of this commonwealth's executive leadership.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky's free market think tank.

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