It took less than 24 hours after a government-paid consultant offered radical recommendations to fix Kentucky’s ailing pension systems for a shadowy group called Save Our Pensions to launch its first online video ad.
The ad, like the recommendations, was drab and drastic, threatening millions in cuts to education and health care if the legislature does not solve the pension crisis, presumably by slashing pension benefits for public workers and retirees.
“Save our pensions,” the ad concluded. “Save education and health care. Urge your representative and senator to support pension reform.”
It’s the “our” in Save Our Pensions that some government workers and retirees take issue with.
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The group is run by three longtime conservative activists — Bridget Bush, Karen Sellers and John Triplett — according to filings with the Secretary of State’s Office. All three ran the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, a non-profit group that supports conservative polices and paid for ads in support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell during his 2014 re-election campaign.
A message left for Bush at her office went unanswered, but around the same time as the call, her husband was being honored by McConnell and sworn in as a federal judge.
The Kentucky Education Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and retiree advocacy groups have all said they do not agree with the tactics of Save Our Pensions.
“My thing is, when they say ‘save our pensions’ I would like to know who they mean by ‘our,’” said Nicolai Jilek, the legislative representative for the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police.
The group pushes a message that highlights the severity of Kentucky’s pension crisis and stresses the possibility that lawmakers will have to drastically cut other vital services to pay for the pensions they have promised public workers.
“It’s a divide and conquer thing where they’re pitting us against children and people that need Medicaid services,” said Larry Totten, the president of Kentucky Public Retirees. “We think that’s unfair.”
Kentucky’s pension system is one of the worst funded in the nation, with an unfunded liability of $40 billion or more. Bevin has promised to call a special legislative session this year to deal with pension reform.
When asked if the governor supports the message Save Our Pensions has been delivering in its ads, communication director Amanda Stamper chose instead to highlight the severity of Kentucky’s pension problem and echoed elements of the ad, particularly regarding the cuts to education and health care.
“Kentucky’s pension systems have lost more than $7 billion in value over the past 10 years,” Stamper said. “If we keep with the current pace, the only way Kentucky will be able to fund these systems will be through massive cuts to education, health care, public safety and infrastructure. Gov. Bevin and the General Assembly are working together to solve this problem, ensuring the promises made to both current employees and retirees are honored.”
Launching a campaign on behalf of a policy proposal is common at the national level, but is still somewhat new in Kentucky.
Save Our Pensions operates outside the jurisdiction of both the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance and the Legislative Branch Ethics Commission. Since it is not advertising on behalf of a candidate, it doesn’t have to register with the state’s election finance branch. And since it isn’t lobbying legislators directly on the pension issue, it doesn’t have to register with the legislative ethics commission.
Registered as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt social welfare group with the IRS, the group also doesn’t have to publicly disclose its donors.
“In recent years, if you watch these things, you see more money being spent like this than ever before,” said John Schaaf, the director of the Legislative Branch Ethics Commission.
So far, it is apparent that money has been spent on online video ads, but how much is not known. It remains unclear how else the group might spend its money.
“It all seems very mysterious,” said Jim Carroll, president of the Kentucky Government Retirees group. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone who speaks for them.”
Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association, said her members are well aware that Save Our Pensions is not aligned with KEA.
“Our people know what the problem is,” Winkler said. “Our members are tuned in and they know our message.”
Jilek said he is concerned about the message the group is sending.
“If by change they mean cuts to our benefits, then we certainly don’t appreciate that,” Jilek said.
While the group’s name might signify solidarity with state pensioners, many of them aren’t buying it. Save Our Pensions might not post very often to Facebook, but its page has 54 one-star reviews and an overall rating of 1.1 stars out of a possible 5.
“This group is only interested in destroying the defined-benefit pensions of Kentucky state employees and putting them on disastrous plans that would be so bad that they would never be able to retire,” one review says. “Don't believe the lies of the people running this page. Stand strong and work to have the state keep its word to fund our pensions and the cost of living adjustment for present and future retirees.”