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Ky. lawmakers keep their promise of cooperation

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — With a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic-led House, the Kentucky Legislature had been mired in political gridlock through most of the past decade.

Frankfort political leaders believe passage of a complicated pension overhaul Tuesday is a clear indication that things have changed.

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican Senate President Robert Stivers had promised a new day of bipartisan cooperation coming into the legislative session in January. Both political leaders, along with Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo, cited pension reforms as evidence that they held true to their word.

Week after week, they continued talks until they arrived at a compromise. Republicans conceded to tweaks to the state tax code to generate money for pensions. Democrats accepted a 401(k)-like retirement plan for newly hired state workers.

"It was truly remarkable what we got done on pensions," said House Majority Whip Tommy Thompson, the Owensboro Democrat who participated in talks. "I had not seen that degree of congeniality in some time."

Soon after the pension reform bill had passed Tuesday night, Beshear appeared in his press briefing room with Stivers, Stumbo and a bipartisan group of other lawmakers to praise their cooperation.

In particular, Beshear pointed to Stivers for his exemplary leadership. Stivers in turned credited Beshear.

"We sent a positive message that we did what our constituents wanted us to do," Stumbo said. "I think that that is a ray of hope that we sent out not only across Kentucky, but across the nation, that not every government that's divided along political lines has to end up in gridlock."

Beshear and Stumbo are veterans in their positions. Stivers is in his first year as Senate president. He replaced Sen. David Williams, a sometimes brash political figure who retired last year when Beshear appointed him as circuit judge in southern Kentucky.

The pension bill would provide nearly $100 million a year to make the state's required contribution to the pension plans of state government employees. It also would create a 401(k)-like retirement plan for new employees in an effort to protect the pension plans of current employees and retirees.

Lawmakers also hammered out agreements on several other high-profile bills, including one that would help ensure Kentucky soldiers deployed overseas get to vote in elections back home. That bill was being pushed by Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and was sponsored by the GOP's Stivers.

The bill would allow deployed soldiers to receive ballots via email, though they would have to return them via traditional mail. Grimes said the measure is important because about 300 overseas ballots arrived in Kentucky too late to be counted in last year's elections.

Lawmakers also worked out an agreement to allow Florida-based Medi-Share to resume operations in Kentucky. The Christian ministry would be exempt from state insurance regulations. A Franklin County Circuit Court judge ordered the ministry to shut down last year at the Kentucky Insurance Department's request.

The ministry had served about 800 people in Kentucky, all of whom had been required to pledge not to smoke, drink, use drugs or have sex outside of marriage.

The cooperation had its limits. For example, lawmakers were unable to get a House redistricting plan passed.

Always a divisive issue, redistricting is supposed to occur every 10 years to account for population changes recorded by the U.S. Census. Kentucky had major population shifts between 2000 and 2010, requiring reconfiguration of legislative districts in both the House and Senate.

The Senate had opted to wait until next year's legislative session to deal with redistricting, and decided not to act on the House-approved plan this year. Senate leaders said they wanted to pass both plans at the same time.

Lawmakers also were unable to agree on a bill that would have relaxed requirements that telephone companies provide landline service to all Kentucky residents. AT&T said the bill would have allowed phone companies to invest more in wireless and Internet services in rural areas. But some feared the bill could have left some rural residents without phone service, especially in remote and sparsely populated communities.

And one of the final actions lawmakers took Tuesday night was to override the governor's veto of a bill intended to protect the religious beliefs of Kentuckians from government intrusions.

Beshear had vetoed the measure Friday at the urging of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky and other groups who contended it could allow people to discriminate against gays, lesbians and others in the name of religion.

Church groups had urged lawmakers to override the veto, saying Kentucky should be allowed to join 16 other states that provide similar protections for people of faith.

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