You have to wonder about Kentucky’s Republican legislators: First, they want to give school teachers guns, then they want to cut their pension benefits.
While not nearly as draconian as Gov. Matt Bevin’s pension plan, Senate Bill 1 tries to counter years of public pension underfunding by taking $4.8 billion in benefits away from employees, retirees and especially teachers and shifting costs to under-funded local governments and school districts.
Republican legislators announced their bill Tuesday night with a press release bragging that it didn’t do many things their own party’s governor wanted to do, such as forcing new employees into risky 401k-style retirement plans.
But few people were fooled by this good cop-bad cop strategy. When GOP lawmakers revealed what their pension bill would do, there wasn’t much to make anyone happy — except maybe legislators who want to avoid long-overdue tax reform.
There are some reasonable things in this bill, such as limiting the use of unused sick days for retirement and requiring teachers to work more years to get full benefits. Most sensible of all is putting the brakes on legislators’ own pension gravy train. Still, I can’t think of many other part-time jobs that even have a pension.
It also was interesting that Republican lawmakers’ research showed it would cost the state $400 million more over 20 years to force teachers and other employees into defined-contribution retirement plans, as Bevin, his $1.25 million consultant and some business leaders wanted to do. That idea was always more about ideology than finance.
But much of Senate Bill 1 is about shifting costs away from state government and degrading the financial security of government retirees and future retirees.
The bill would cut cost-of-living increases for retired teachers in half for a dozen years. (Other state retirees haven’t had cost-of-living increases for years.) New teachers would be put into a less-generous cash-balance retirement plan that pays benefits based on investment returns rather than receiving a defined-benefits pension based on their salary with future cost-of-living increases.
Most new state and local government employees have been in a cash-balance plan since 2014, but its guaranteed 4 percent annual return would be replaced by a promise that they wouldn’t lose money.
Perhaps most troubling, the bill ends the “inviolable contract” for new teachers hired after July 1, which means lawmakers could change their benefits at any point in the future. Since teachers aren’t eligible for Social Security, that risk could make smart young people think twice before entering the low-pay, high-stress but vitally important field of public education.
You can’t blame some teachers and public employees for seeing this as just another reflection of the GOP’s anti-government philosophy, which includes outsourcing many government functions it can’t eliminate and weakening public schools with funding cuts, charter schools and voucher schemes.
Now three Republican lawmakers have introduced Senate Bill 103 to arm teachers and other school employees as “marshals.” That is much easier for legislators than funding better school security or, heaven forbid, supporting common-sense laws to make it harder for people to get their hands on military-style weapons of mass destruction.
Sen. Joe Bowen of Owensboro, the Republican pension bill’s prime sponsor, made it clear he doesn’t want to hear objections — “We’ve made countless concessions!” — even though the people most affected by this plan were given no real voice in its development.
Dream on, senator. I wouldn’t count on teachers and other public employees taking your advice to sit down and shut up. I suspect you will be hearing from a lot of them in the coming days — and you certainly will hear from them on election day. They made their required pension contributions, and they expect you to make yours, even if it means you must raise somebody’s taxes or eliminate some tax breaks for your campaign contributors.
Legislators also should be hearing from average citizens, people who realize that if Kentucky wants good public schools, efficient public services, a good quality of life and a strong economy, it must attract and retain talented teachers and government workers.
If this pension bill is the best our leaders can do, maybe we need new leaders.