Gov. Matt Bevin has been sounding the alarm about the state’s public pension problems since his earliest days in office. Now, he’s close to calling the General Assembly into an October special session to address those problems.
But instead of offering sound proposals to begin this important debate, Bevin is stuck in attack mode.
The past week, he indulged in a frenzy of scapegoating and fear-mongering.
He’s lumped all the systems in one sinking boat — even those like the teachers’ and county employees’ systems that are about 60 percent funded — with the huge Kentucky Employees Retirement System that is about 16 percent funded.
He’s attacked a past executive director of the pension funds (he “should be in jail,” what’s been done “has been criminal”) and made vague allegations about profiteering at the expense of the funds (“manipulation of these plans for the benefit of a few well-connected individuals”).
He took his bludgeon to state teachers, accusing them of “hoarding sick days” to boost their pension benefits. Teachers considering retiring now to preserve their benefits, “would walk out on your classroom ... in your own personal best interest at the expense of your children,” Bevin charged. “You probably should retire,” he told them.
That drew a rebuke from House Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, whose wife has taught first grade for 25 years. She works even when she’s sick, Hoover said, not to boost her retirement but because, for many of her kids, “it’s the only time they get a hug during the day.”
“I would encourage everyone out there to tone down the rhetoric, to tone down the hate,” he said.
Excellent advice. Even if the governor won’t heed it, Hoover’s fellow legislators must.
It is they who will pass legislation affecting everyone, not just the hundreds of thousands of retirees and current workers.
They must remember that previous legislatures and governors shortchanged the pensions.
Bevin may be right that pension officials downplayed the systems’ problems; but the truth remains that, for almost two decades, the state failed to pay its share, even though teachers, state and county employees, state troopers and others contributed to the system with every paycheck.
In his early days as governor, Bevin seemed to understand the state had balanced budgets in part by shortchanging retirement systems. As recently as this February, he cited the pension problems and said tax reform must provide more revenue to address them.
But that was then.
Now, perhaps looking to a political future we can’t see, Bevin says he won’t propose raising taxes to solve the pension crisis. Instead he’ll vilify current workers and retirees to make cutting their benefits acceptable. He’s championed a 401(k)-type system that will strangle pension funds even further, save the state little and leave workers poorer in retirement.
The only alternative, he asserts, is draconian cuts to all of state government, including education.
Many legislators, like Hoover, know public workers personally. They aren’t devious people trying to scam the system but friends and neighbors, members of their churches and voters. They are people who based their lives on promises made by the state.
Legislators should listen to Hoover, tune out the rhetoric and put away the hate. They must reject the governor’s boogie men.
Finally, they must have a productive debate based on facts, not fear. It’s the only way to reach a solution that’s fair to retirees, current workers and future workers considering careers in public service.