A room of government retirees grilled Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin for more than an hour Friday afternoon in Lexington, but many left unconvinced that his "tough love" proposals would fix the state's cash-strapped pension systems.
Telling the audience that he understands "the pension business like nobody that's ever run for office in this state, frankly, certainly for governor," Bevin opened it up for questions at the Kentucky Public Retirees' annual convention.
Since entering the race for governor in late January, Bevin has consistently boasted of his expertise in managing pension funds, telling crowds all across the state that he built a business out of the basement of his house that today manages more than $5 billion in pension assets.
But when Donna Slaton, with the Pennyrile chapter of the group, asked Bevin if he would commit to "putting the full ARC in your budget," referring to the annual required contribution from the state, Bevin's response was: "The full ARC?"
After further explanation, Bevin said he "cannot speak to the budget myself."
"I can't at this point," he said. "What I will commit to is ensuring that we fulfill the promises that we made to you."
Bevin repeatedly told the crowd that he would not make promises he couldn't keep, blasting lawmakers for not addressing the financial problems of the state's various retirement systems during the last legislative session and criticizing Democratic opponent Jack Conway for not offering specifics about how he would address the issue.
Conway, the state's attorney general, did not address the convention, but his running mate, state Rep. Sannie Overly of Paris, spoke to the group Thursday morning.
Bevin assailed what he called a "dearth of leadership" in the state, saying "we have had very little leadership in either party at the highest levels in this state for quite some time."
"We spent a lot of time talking about who uses what bathroom in a public school," Bevin said. "We used a whole lot of time talking about whether or not we should have needle exchanges. We spent a whole lot of time talking about a whole lot of things that had nothing to do with this issue or other issues that are pressing and compelling for us to think about."
Bevin has proposed moving new hires to a 401(k)-style defined contribution program, saying he offer incentives to current employees to follow suit.
But a number of people asked Bevin how that plan would help the pension systems overcome massive projected shortfalls. The Kentucky Retirement Systems, which covers 348,123 active, inactive and retired employees of state and local government, has $9.1 billion less than it is projected to need in coming years. The Kentucky Teachers' Retirement System, which covers more than 141,000 educators, is about $14 billion short.
Fred Nett, with the group's north central chapter, asked Bevin for specifics about his plan, saying that "addressing the issue of new hires has nothing to do with the problem that we're currently facing."
Bevin told Nett about his plan for new hires and repeated his call to audit the retirement systems.
Afterward, said he doesn't think Bevin understands the intricacies of the pension systems.
Bevin used "weasel words regarding what the state's contractual and moral and legal obligation is to employees and retirees who are part of KRS," Nett said.
Nett said he "was impressed with Mr. Bevin's personal capabilities as a campaigner, but not impressed with his candor or honesty or his ability to communicate that he really understands the problem and has an action plan for solving it."
John Harris, of London, told Bevin he was concerned that a move to 401(k)-style plan would leave fewer people paying into the current defined-benefit pension systems, exacerbating the problem.
Harris said afterward that he likes "a lot of what [Bevin] says, but I didn't get all the answers."
"Philosophically, I agree with him on a lot of things, but I'm a retiree, and I'm worried about my own retirement check every month," Harris said. "I'm an old man."
Bevin disputed the suggestion that he had struggled to offer specifics, saying he spoke with audience members after the event who were complimentary.