Tom Eblen

Lawmakers should start over on pension reform. Otherwise, teachers may expel them.

Thousand-strong pension rally had a message for legislators

Teachers and public workers gathered at the Capitol Monday to rally against SB 1, the controversial pension bill.
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Teachers and public workers gathered at the Capitol Monday to rally against SB 1, the controversial pension bill.

Remember those smart aleck boys in school who disrespected teachers? They thought they were clever and could get away with anything — until they were expelled.

It wasn’t a good strategy then, and Kentucky’s Republican governor and legislators are finding out it’s not a good strategy now.

As hundreds of chanting teachers protested Friday in the state Capitol, Republican senators canceled plans to vote a controversial pension overhaul bill that would cut $4.8 billion in benefits for public employees, retirees and especially teachers.

Instead, they sent Senate Bill 1 back to committee for possible changes. The teachers cheered — and promised to keep coming back to Frankfort until lawmakers quit trying to make them bear the brunt of fixing the state’s underfunded pension system.

Teachers have staged “walk ins” in several counties and vowed to defeat any legislator who votes for this pension bill. All 100 representatives and 19 of 38 senators are up for re-election in November. Virtually all of them have opponents, and more than two dozen of those opponents are current or retired educators.

Rather than just send Senate Bill 1 back to committee, Republican lawmakers should tear it up and start over.

Yes, with billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities, Kentucky’s public employee pension plans need fixing. But the remedies proposed by Gov. Matt Bevin and GOP majority in the General Assembly reek of disrespect for teachers, retirees and workers.

Bevin last year started hyping a “crisis” in state pensions, as if all the liabilities needed to be paid immediately instead of over decades. Bevin paid $1.25 million to a consulting firm to justify his ideological “solution” — switching teachers and other employees from traditional defined-benefit pensions to 401k-style defined-contribution plans, leaving them much poorer in retirement. When teachers and other employees pushed back, Bevin responded with smart aleck, condescending comments.

Bevin’s plan flopped because the numbers didn’t add up. He withheld one actuarial analysis and ordered a redo of another that showed that. An analysis by Republican lawmakers, who initially supported Bevin’s plan, showed it would cost $400 million more over 20 years than the current system.

GOP lawmakers then set about developing their own plan, but used the same faulty process Bevin did: They met in secrecy and excluded Democrats, teachers, employees and retirees from the discussions.

While better than Bevin’s plan, Senate Bill 1 relies too much on cutting benefits. Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, says the bill is illegal in at least 21 ways. “It is clear that if you pass SB 1 into law, you should expect numerous lawsuits, which the commonwealth will lose,” he warned.

There are several reasons Kentucky’s pension plans are under-funded, but a big one is that while employees made their required contributions every year, the state did not. That’s because governors and legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, didn’t want to fix Kentucky’s antiquated tax system to raise more revenue.

This is what needs to happen: Senate Bill 1 needs to die in committee. Bevin needs to call a special session later this year on tax reform. Republicans and Democrats need to work on real tax reform that will raise real money to pay for Kentucky’s many needs: pensions, education, criminal justice, social services and quality-of-life assets such as state parks and the arts.

Once that is done, they need to develop a bipartisan pension reform plan — in the open, with involvement from all stakeholders — that treats everyone fairly.

Most government retirees can’t afford big benefit cuts. This is especially true for teachers, who aren’t eligible for Social Security. Their pension is their retirement.

Kentucky also cannot afford to significantly cut benefits for current and future employees if taxpayers want to continue attracting and retaining quality people to teach their children and provide public services.

Nobody goes into public education for the money. Most people become teachers because they are passionate about helping children develop and succeed. But as teachers are asked to do more and more for less and less, many good people will be driven out of the profession — or will never enter it.

Teachers and retired teachers deserve more respect than they have been getting from the politicians now running Kentucky. If those politicians don’t shape up, they may find themselves expelled come November.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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