Editorials

OK. Forget the ‘knock out’ analogy. Bevin’s public pension scare tactics are still all wet

Gov. Matt Bevin
Gov. Matt Bevin

Let’s take Gov. Matt Bevin’s advice: Shrug off the demeaning even violent language he uses to describe public employees. Focus on the “heart” of his recent messages.

What he says is still insulting — to Kentuckians’ intelligence. (Scaremongering usually is.)

Bevin insists that without changes Republicans pushed through the legislature and that he signed into law, the public pension systems can’t be “saved.” Yet those changes would have minimal to no effect on the pensions’ underfunding, according to official analyses.

Bevin says stakeholders fear change, so it’s best for “outside entities” to make “hard decisions.” Yet stakeholders weren’t afraid to work with lawmakers of both parties in 2013 to restructure and scale back public pensions. Cost of living increases were limited and new state and county workers moved into a cash-balance plan.

In 2014, the legislature, after a decade of underfunding pensions, returned to paying what it had promised. Over time, full funding of the system as it was restructured in 2013 will “save” it. Nothing else can.

Bevin warned a gathering of local officials on Aug. 15 that counties will be “screwed” if the Supreme Court strikes down Senate Bill 151, aka the sewer bill, reports the Associated Press.

Bevin seemed to be saying that a setback for SB 151 would spell the demise of House Bill 362. Among other benefit cuts, SB 151 moves future teachers into a 401(k)-style plan and shifts more of their retirement costs onto local districts. HB 362 relieves local governments from steep increases in pension contributions by phasing in the increases over a longer period. The same legislative process (gut a bill, substitute a new bill, pass it in a day) was used to enact both measures.

The fallacy in Bevin’s scare tactic is that no one is challenging SB 362, or likely to. Lawmakers gave it near unanimous approval and soundly overrode Bevin’s veto. (Yes, he vetoed a bill he now says is protecting some counties from failing.) In the unlikely event that HB 362 is in peril, lawmakers could easily re-enact it early next year.

Remember, too, that the pension board controlled by Bevin spawned this false crisis for local governments. Jason Bailey of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy says the board adopted the nation’s “most conservative assumptions” about income and expenses, thus dictating the steep increases. The motive was likely to scare local officials into supporting Republican attacks on pensions. So we have a manufactured crisis that the legislature would readily ease. Maybe counties aren’t as “absolutely screwed” as Bevin warned.

Bevin waited until the deadline to appeal a Franklin Circuit Court ruling striking down SB 151 on procedural grounds. His office then called for “a speedy and final resolution” and warned that our pension system is “dangerously close to collapsing,” an exaggeration that is dangerously close to false. Bevin’s legal team asked the Supreme Court for an expedited schedule then suggested a non-expedited schedule. The high court set oral arguments in September, a month earlier than what Bevin sought.

Bevin’s water-safety facts are also shaky. He likens foes of his pension solutions to a hysterical drowning victim who must be knocked out to be saved. What lifeguards are taught is to throw a lifeline and carry a rescue buoy to keep a drowning victim afloat. The way to keep public pension systems afloat is for the state to pay what it owes — in full — every year.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear talks about Governor Matt Bevin to a crowd of teacher Friday at the Capitol after talking of his plans to sue to block the pension reform bill.

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