By Stephanie J. Winkler
As president of the Kentucky Education Association, I would like to help the public understand the impact of the decision by the leaders of Kentucky's Senate to delay action on providing badly needed funding for the Kentucky Teachers' Retirement System.
KEA represents 42,000 active and retired teachers, all of whom have a direct stake in the financial health of the retirement system. We supported and advocated for House Bill 4, the legislation introduced during the 2015 session of the Kentucky General Assembly that would have allowed the pension system to refinance a portion of its current debt by issuing bonds at historically low rates.
That bill passed out of the House with a supermajority, but the Senate refused to take meaningful action to address this pressing need.
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Assuring that KTRS has the funds it needs to meet its obligation to our retirees is the single biggest financing issue facing the commonwealth. It currently pays nearly $1.6 billion each year to more than 44,000 annuitants who live in every Kentucky county and who use their monthly pensions to buy groceries, gasoline and clothing, and to pay their mortgages and utilities. They contribute to their churches and local charities.
They spend their retirement benefits right there in the Kentucky communities where they live. What's more, KTRS pays Kentucky doctors, medical facilities and pharmacies an additional $21 million a month in medical benefits for retirees and their survivors.
The Republican leaders of the Kentucky Senate, who failed to agree on the viable funding solution offered in House Speaker Greg Stumbo's bill — or to offer a credible alternative — should recognize the importance of this powerful economic engine, which enables our career public servants to return so much money to their local economies.
Sadly, KTRS has almost $14 billon in future unfunded liabilities. Every day the General Assembly fails to act to assure adequate long-term funding, that gap will continue to grow.
There is no more critical priority for Kentucky than making sure we continue to attract and retain the very best educators for our public schools. Because Kentucky teachers are not covered by Social Security, they must depend on KTRS alone in their retirement years.
If the commonwealth cannot — or will not — take steps to assure the pension system's financial stability the best teachers are likely to look elsewhere or to leave the profession altogether.
The 675,000 students in our public schools today have just this one chance to make a better future for themselves, for their families and for Kentucky. They cannot afford — we cannot afford — to wait for our elected leaders to decide to take action. The leaders of both parties must come together now, not later, on a plan to guarantee secure, long-term funding for the teachers' retirement system.