Editorials

With their pension overhaul stymied, Kentucky Republicans should try what’s worked before

Teachers and other supporters rally against SB 1 on the Capitol steps in Frankfort on March 12.
Teachers and other supporters rally against SB 1 on the Capitol steps in Frankfort on March 12.

Kentucky Republicans frustrated by their stymied pension overhaul should flip back through 30 years of the legislature’s greatest hits.

Successful reforms enlisted stakeholders from the beginning — not just as tokens, but deeply, to identify priorities, build consensus, hammer out details.

None of that happened with Senate Bill 1, the 289-page plan to fix ailing pensions by cutting billions in benefits. Unveiled halfway through this session, it was recently declared all but dead by Senate President Robert Stivers after failing to earn enough support even among Republicans to risk a vote.

SB 1 was hatched in secret by, well, we’re not exactly sure who. At this point no amount of robo-calling by dark money groups or insult-hurling by Gov. Matt Bevin can make up for the trust deficit spawned by that lockout of stakeholders and the public.

What could work is starting over with all the affected groups at the table and all concerns laid out for the world to see.

Teachers and public employees are willing to sacrifice to make their pension plans solvent, contrary to Bevin’s invective. But they have to know that their sacrifices will produce the promised results.

The demand to “Find Funding First” — seen on signs hoisted by teachers thronging the Capitol — is spot on. The only thing that will end the huge unfunded liabilities in Kentucky’s pension systems is money to make up for years of intentional underfunding by governors and lawmakers.

To their credit, Bevin’s budget and the House budget adequately fund pensions for the next two years.

If other more fundamental changes and cutbacks are needed, as Sen. Joe Bowen, the Senate’s pension expert, insists, then lay them out, let everyone be heard and, if they can, offer better alternatives.

We’ve already seen public employees sacrifice to shore up their pension systems in 2013 when the legislature moved state and local employees from defined benefit into the hybrid cash balance plans that the Senate also wants for newly hired teachers. Also, in Lexington in 2013, police and firefighters agreed to pay more to restore their pensions to sound footing in exchange for the city promising the same.

Bevin, who poisoned the well by demonizing teachers last fall, was at it again March 13, lobbing ill-informed insults at teachers and lawmakers on the radio in Campbellsville.

Whether Bevin’s ego would let him participate in multi-stakeholder negotiations is questionable.

But that approach has succeeded in the past — from the education and solid-waste reforms of the 1990s to the pension reforms of 2013 to last year’s juvenile justice reforms and this year’s improvements in foster care and adoption.

Tough problems get solved when stakeholders are at the table and the work starts in the interim between sessions. The more complicated — and it doesn’t get more complicated than pensions — the more critical it is to engage those with the most on the line.

The best that can come from this session now is full pension funding for the next two years and relief for local governments, school districts, universities, libraries and quasi-government agencies from huge new pension costs imposed by Bevin’s pension board. Also, a promise from legislative leaders to involve stakeholders in any new plan that might be considered in a special session or next year’s legislature.

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