“If you happen to be a teacher who would walk out on your classroom in order to serve what’s in your own personal best interest at the expense of your children, you probably should retire.” Those words from Governor Matt Bevin sadly reflect the overall tone of the debate about public pensions in Kentucky.
It’s true that public pensions here face real challenges — the consequence of years of deliberate underfunding by state government. Unfortunately, Bevin has chosen personal attacks on teachers over a collaborative dialogue on how to overcome these challenges.
Last month Bevin and senior legislative leaders unveiled their proposed pension legislation. This legislation is problematic in general, but is particularly harmful to current and future teachers. The most significant change is moving all future teachers and some current teachers into a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan. Not only would this fail to address the underfunding problem facing Kentucky’s pension plans, but it would also decimate retirement savings for teachers.
I was a teacher in the Berea Community School System for 30 years. Since I retired almost 17 years ago, I have relied on my pension from the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System to pay for essentials like food and medicine. Kentucky teachers don’t participate in Social Security and for many of us our pension benefit is the only retirement savings we will have.
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Bevin describes his proposed defined contribution plan as “generous,” but the state’s contribution to the plan is actually less than would be required under Social Security. Employers pay 6.2 percent Social Security tax, but state government would only contribute 4 percent under the governor’s legislation, and school districts would contribute 2 percent. An August report found that Kentucky’s annual pension costs are quite low but Kentucky’s pension plans have so much debt because the state skipped its required payments for years.
We’ve seen these negative attacks on public employees and their pensions before. Several years ago, San Jose, Calif., instituted harsh cuts to pension benefits for police officers, firefighters and other city employees. These cuts were pushed by the former mayor, Chuck Reed, who now heads an anti-pension organization misleadingly called the Retirement Security Initiative.
What was particularly noteworthy about the pension cuts in San Jose was the bitter tone regarding public employees. Many San Jose city employees felt like they were being scapegoated. In an attempt to make the pension cuts more politically favorable, the city focused on issues that were less significant financially but that could be made to sound abusive, such as eliminating pension payments for unused sick leave.
Many of the pension cuts pushed by Reed were rejected as unconstitutional following a long and expensive court battle.
While teachers were not a part of the fight in San Jose, it still serves as a warning about pursuing a negative and one-sided campaign against retirement security for working families. Even prominent proponents of the pension changes in San Jose later acknowledged it as a disaster, with one including it in his list of Worst Local Decisions of the Last 50 Years.
Much like the in San Jose, many of Bevin’s proposals are of questionable legality. This is what happens when you pursue one-sided changes without seeking input from those who would be directly affected. Unfortunately, Bevin seems to view Kentucky’s teachers as his opponents, rather than as partners with something to contribute. We’ve seen the governor attacking individual teachers on social media for their criticism of his anti-pension campaign.
Kentucky’s educators can be part of the solution. We are not the problem. Bevin may not have been part of the underfunding by the state, but his legislation to address the underfunding will decimate retirement savings for teachers and other public employees.
The governor must let go of his hostility toward teachers and reach out for our ideas on how to preserve Kentucky’s pensions for future generations of educators.
Joyce Mosher is a retired teacher who lives in Berea.