Gov. Matt Bevin doesn’t fool Kentucky teachers. They have seen his kind their whole careers.
He is the name-calling bully on the playground. He is the kid who doesn’t know the answer when called upon in class, who doesn’t do research for his term paper or study for his test, but tries to disguise his lack of knowledge with a verbal blizzard of nonsense.
Kids like that sometimes get elected student council president, but they can’t cut it on the debate team.
Faced with huge unfunded liabilities in the pension systems for Kentucky’s 208,000 public employees, the Republican governor and GOP leaders in the General Assembly launched a secretive effort to “reform” them.
So far, their solutions focus on cutting benefits for employees and future retirees and shifting workers with defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans. This shift would make pensions riskier and do nothing to pay off current liabilities. Republicans are trying to push through these changes in a special session before the end of the year, although Bevin won’t say when he will call it.
Leaders of the Kentucky Education Association, the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, the Kentucky PTA and the Kentucky School Boards Association have said they are “seriously concerned” about Bevin’s proposals. Teachers have expressed outrage in public forums across the state.
Bevin has yet to address educators’ concerns or consider alternatives. He just insists that his plan will fix everything; that any other approach is a “path to insolvency”; and that the opposition lacks “the sophistication to understand what’s at stake.”
When it was pointed out in August that about 20 percent of Kentucky’s 42,000 public school teachers are eligible to retire — and many might do so if pension changes gave them no reason to keep working — Bevin lashed out with insults.
“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,” the governor said.
Last week when former Fayette County Superintendent Tom Shelton, now executive director of the superintendents’ association, suggested that schools might be dismissed for a day during the special session so teachers could protest or lobby their legislators, Bevin lashed out again.
“Bringing mayhem to Kentucky, disrupting teachers, disrupting students, disrupting families, disrupting the state’s economy, to prevent us from solving this crisis, this isn’t the solution, it’s not the right thing to do, shame on you for even calling for this,” the governor said.
Bevin outlined his plans Oct. 18, but it wasn’t until Friday night that he released specifics of his proposed legislation. The 505-page bill leaves many questions unanswered, such as how unfunded pension liabilities would be funded.
It also includes some surprises. One is that an additional 3 percent paycheck deduction for retiree health care that Bevin and legislative leaders claimed is needed to strengthen those funds would not add any money to them; it would just shifts costs from employers to employees. Also, Bevin’s bill removes a guarantee of paid sick days for teachers, leaving that up to local districts, and prohibits unused sick days from counting toward pension benefits after 2023.
Kentucky’s public pension liabilities are estimated at more than $40 billion, including $14.5 billion in the generally well-managed Kentucky Teachers Retirement System. This despite bipartisan pension-reform legislation passed in 2013 that moved new state employees to hybrid pension systems.
There are many reasons for these shortfalls: Overly generous benefits for some retirees; risky and secretive investments that performed poorly; a smaller state government work force; market losses during the Great Recession; and the fact that many state employees who can retire in their 50s are living longer.
But there also were years of under-funding by governors and legislators who liked to dip into employee funds for other needs. That happened because politicians always want to cut taxes but never raise them.
Kentucky needs real pension reform: Bipartisan solutions that involve sacrifice all around, not just by public employees. Discussing pension reform without simultaneous tax reform that significantly increases state revenues is a farce. So is trying to pit public employees against other taxpayers, which is at the core of Bevin’s strategy. There is no finer group of people than Kentucky’s public school educators, and the way this governor is treating them is shameful.
Teachers are a lot more sophisticated than Bevin thinks. Come election time, legislators who fail to understand that fact may find themselves expelled.