FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Two days after an eastern Kentucky police officer was killed on the job, some state lawmakers have voted to triple the benefits for his widow.
Pikeville Police Officer Scotty Hamilton was patrolling Hurricane Creek in Pike County on Tuesday night when he and a state trooper split up to search the area after finding what police described as a suspicious vehicle. Gunfire erupted, and the trooper later found Hamilton had been shot and killed.
A 12-year veteran of the department, Hamilton leaves behind a wife and a child. State law says Hamilton’s widow has a choice: She can take 25 percent of her husband’s salary, or take whatever retirement benefits he was eligible for at the time of his death.
That law does not offer much support for spouses whose loved ones did not have enough time in the pension system to accumulate much of a benefit. But House bill 185, which cleared a legislative committee on Thursday, would change that. It would let spouses like Hamilton’s wife receive 75 percent of their loved one’s salary. But if the spouse ever remarries, the benefit would drop back to 25 percent.
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The bill would apply to anyone who lost a spouse after Jan. 1, 2017. It would cover all employees in the Kentucky Employees Retirement Systems, which include police officers, firefighters and other state workers.
Of the 50 people receiving benefits, 33 would be eligible for the increase, according to Karen Roggenkamp, executive director of the Office of Operations for the Kentucky Retirement Systems.
It’s unclear how much the bill would cost the retirement system, which is among the worst funded in the country. Lawmakers amended the bill on Thursday, and Roggenkamp said officials have not had time to complete an analysis on the changes.
Lawmakers have been working on the bill for months, long before Hamilton was killed. The proposal was backdated to benefit spouses like Ashley Rodman, whose husband was killed in the line of duty in 2017. Because of a paperwork issue, Ashley Rodman was not designated as the beneficiary for her husband’s benefits. The bill would correct that issue, plus boost the benefits Rodman will receive.
Rodman was emotional after the hearing, but declined to speak with reporters.
The bill has been the center of political drama this week at the Kentucky Capitol. On Tuesday, Rodman and others from the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police publicly confronted lawmakers for not calling the bill for a vote. They told reporters the bill was being blocked to punish police unions for not supporting a bill that would overhaul the state’s beleaguered pension system.
Republican state Rep. John Blanton, a former state trooper and the bill’s sponsor, fiercely denied that. He vowed the bill would pass before the legislature adjourns for the year next month. After Thursday, lawmakers will have nine legislative days left to pass bills.
“I’m elated we’re going to move this thing forward,” Blanton said. “I’m not happy with the games that’s been played with these poor widows. They have been used as pawns.”
Nicolai Jilek, president of the River City Fraternal Order of Police who was critical of lawmakers earlier in the week, said he was just happy to see the bill moving. He said he did not know if his comments earlier in the week had spurred lawmakers to action.
“I just want to really be positive about this,” he said. “We consider this to be a good day.”