Tom Eblen

‘Selfish.’ ‘Thug mentality.’ Why does Bevin keep insulting teachers, workers, retirees?

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin unveils the proposed solution for the Kentucky's pension program during a press conference at the Kentucky State Capital on Wednesday, October 18, 2017 in Frankfort, Ky.
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin unveils the proposed solution for the Kentucky's pension program during a press conference at the Kentucky State Capital on Wednesday, October 18, 2017 in Frankfort, Ky. Michael Reaves | Herald-Leader

Why does Gov. Matt Bevin keep insulting state workers and retirees who dispute his inaccurate claims that his way is the only way to fix Kentucky’s under-funded pension systems?

He especially seems to enjoy attacking school teachers, even though Republican lawmakers have made it clear that’s a bad idea.

Bevin went on radio and accused protesting teachers of being “selfish” and “ignorant.” After his remarks were widely criticized, he sort of apologized. Then he did it again, saying those who oppose Republican plans for pension reform have a “thug mentality” and are “angry people who want to destroy what’s good for this state.”

It’s like he can’t help himself.

Bevin’s bully behavior has united public employees, retirees and especially teachers like never before. They’re organizing, protesting at the state Capitol, running for the General Assembly and threatening to unseat any lawmaker who supports the pension bill.

So why does he keep doing it?

One theory is that Bevin is on a power trip. He takes an expansive view of his powers as governor and often needs reining in. He is losing this power struggle, and he’s lashing out.

Another theory is that he has ambitions for higher office. While he avoids questions from Kentucky journalists, he has in the past month done interviews with NPR, MSNBC and Fox News (twice). He attends gatherings of the Koch brothers’ network of conservative donors.

Republican politicians hate unions, and they especially hate public-sector unions. Gov. Scott Walker became a GOP star after he started busting Wisconsin’s public employee unions in 2010. Does Bevin see subduing government workers as a path to advancement?

As soon as Republicans gained total control of the General Assembly last year, they worked with Bevin to target private-sector workers with a union-busting “right to work” law and a repeal of the “prevailing wage” law that boosted pay for construction workers on public projects.

Then they took aim at public workers, and not just their pensions. Bevin’s state budget plan included changes in law — taken out by the House but restored by the Senate — to significantly erode job security rights for the state’s 30,000 merit-system employees.

Bevin came to the governor’s office with a business background but no government experience. It shows. Like many executives, he seems to have little regard for workers — and even less for government workers. They are costs to be controlled.

Politicians have always seen educators as an easy mark. Most are women, and they put up with low pay, insufficient resources and constant micromanagement because they have a passion for teaching children. But that’s also why teachers have become better organized than other public employees.

“Maybe it’s a union tactic to make the teachers dependent on them, and not on their own savings,” Bevin said of the Kentucky Education Association.

In a reference to those who booed Sen. Joe Bowen, the pension bill’s sponsor, from the Senate gallery and picketed his Owensboro business, Bevin used a common anti-union code word: “That’s the kind of thug mentality that’s being dealt with.”

Since Bevin began his pension-reform campaign last summer, his strategy has been to create an air of crisis and pit teachers and public employees against other taxpayers to fix an under-funding problem with benefit cuts instead of tax increases.

But the governor has constantly undermined his position by insulting hard-working people that other Kentuckians see as their relatives, friends and neighbors. He also has made claims — such as “the system will fail if the KEA gets its wish” — that simply are not true.

After discovering that Bevin’s ideology-driven scheme to force teachers and others from traditional pensions into defined-contribution plans would cost taxpayers more money instead of less, Republican lawmakers developed their own bill. Like Bevin’s plan, it was written in secret with no participation by workers or retirees.

That bill also created a firestorm, and seems unlikely to become law. So GOP senators now appear to be retaliating by underfunding teacher pensions to help other employee groups and withholding relief from local governments facing steep increases in pension payments. As if that will win them any friends.

In this showdown between bullies and thugs, my long-term bet is on the thugs.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen