Thursday, September 23, 2004

Dems pledge bipartisan help

By Joe Biesk
The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - House Speaker Jody Richards reacted to Gov. Ernie Fletcher's call for a special session Wednesday, saying Democratic lawmakers would work to get teachers and state employees "the very best plan" they could.

While some lawmakers pledged bipartisanship for the session, which starts Oct. 5, it was uncertain what the General Assembly could do to improve health insurance for teachers and state employees next year.

"We're looking forward to the challenge and we will do everything within our abilities to work with the governor and work with the Senate in a bipartisan way," Richards said.

Richards, D-Bowling Green, said he hoped the special session would last no more than five days.

The governor announced Tuesday he would call the special session. The session will be limited to dealing with compensation, health insurance and retirement benefits for current and retired teachers and state employees, Fletcher said.

Fletcher administration officials said at an afternoon legislative hearing that the state had already signed contracts with insurance companies for next year. Those contracts are limited as to how they can be altered, said Fletcher's chief of staff, Daniel Groves.

Any attempt to rebid the contracts could result in a gap of insurance coverage for state employees, he said. Their new benefits are scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.

Still, the governor decided to call the special session to see if Democrats, who had criticized the plan, had a better idea, Groves said.

"What we've done is we've presented a plan," Groves told reporters. "They've criticized it but offered no alternatives. If they don't like the plan that's been presented, then what we are saying is, 'We are going to give you an opportunity to present the better plan.' "

But Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, said he thought lawmakers could upgrade state employee benefits.

"There's no question that we can mitigate the increased costs," he said.

Richards said legislators first needed Fletcher to release documents surrounding the negotiations and ultimate agreement that led to the new 2005 health insurance benefits for teachers and state workers.

Fletcher recently announced an overhaul of the state health-insurance plan for next year. Under the plan - which affects thousands of state employees, teachers and public school workers - most would be paying more in deductibles and co-payments starting next year.

The announced changes angered many teachers and state employees, and the Kentucky Education Association voted last weekend that it would go on strike late next month if, among other things, current health benefits weren't restored.

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