Op-Ed

Put yourself in a Ky. teacher’s shoes to see the unfairness of pension ‘reform’

Protesters lined the hallways of the Capitol Annex on March 7 before the Senate State and Local Government Committee voted on a controversial plan to overhaul Kentucky’s ailing public pension systems.
Protesters lined the hallways of the Capitol Annex on March 7 before the Senate State and Local Government Committee voted on a controversial plan to overhaul Kentucky’s ailing public pension systems. ddesrochers@herald-leader.com

Put yourself in the shoes of a typical Kentucky schoolteacher for a moment.

You’ve spent the past 30 years teaching in the classroom, averaging 20 to 30 children in your class each year. Because some of your students’ families can’t afford them, you selflessly purchase materials and supplies out of your own pocket.

You spend countless hours beyond the classroom participating in other school activities, such as programs, dances, tutoring and being present in the community.

You are a teacher, social worker, philanthropist, coach, mentor, psychologist and unfortunately in today’s environment, you will possibly serve as a bodyguard.

For the past 10 years, you received a single, one-percent merit increase. If you earned a $50,000 salary in 2008, it now has $7,000 less in purchasing power, thanks to inflation. Essentially, your pay is decreasing every year.

You knew going into this profession your earning potential was limited. Nevertheless, you were willing to make that sacrifice because of the positive impact your work would have on thousands of children, and because you had confidence that the state had taken measures to ensure you had a safe and dignified retirement.

Now, fast forward to 2018.

For the past decade, elected officials in Frankfort used smoke and mirrors to balance their budgets, funded pet projects, and provided billions of dollars in corporate tax incentives — all at the expense of Kentucky’s public-pension systems. Meanwhile, teachers never skipped a single contribution from their paychecks.

The Teachers Retirement System was nearly 100 percent funded in 2003, but was degraded to just over 50-percent funded in 2017 — a state of crisis.

Our state elected officials, many of whom worked in Frankfort while our public pensions were not properly funded, are now proposing pension reform measures designed to achieve most of their savings solely off the backs of our retired teachers, through reductions in cost-of- living adjustments.

The proposed reforms also negate the inviolable contract we have with our government, which means future generations of politicians can — and likely will — indiscriminately raid our earned retirement benefits whenever they have to address a budget shortfall.

Senate Bill 1 and the proposed House budget are a dynamic duo of smoke and mirrors, placing further financial burdens on current and retired teachers.

The House budget calls for funding its share of the health care burden the first year of the biennium, and then allocates no money the second, requiring TRS to use its medical fund. This could cause the medical fund to fall below 25 percent funding, which would trigger a one-percent additional contribution — read pay decrease — for teachers because of SB 1.

Now put yourself in the shoes of a retired schoolteacher with an annual retirement payout of about $33,000 a year.

You’re five years into your well-earned retirement and you wake up to find out that your benefits will be stagnant for several years — costing you approximately $65,000 over your lifetime.

Inflation will likely reduce the purchasing power of your retirement payments by another 15 to 20 percent. This is financially devastating for the average retired teacher.

Where is the sacrifice from Frankfort? Where is the sacrifice from our business community that receives more than $13 billion in corporate welfare each year? Why have we not considered pursuing additional revenue?

How do you pass this proposed pension reform knowing that without tax reform, you could be asking teachers to bail out Frankfort yet again in another year or two?

The bottom line is that Frankfort politicians want “reform” so long as it doesn’t jeopardize their wealthy corporate donors or risk their ability to be re-elected.

Any pension reform effort should be a shared sacrifice — not a unilateral effort to put the onus on teachers, who over the course of many years have fulfilled their obligations to fund TRS with the unfulfilled promise from Frankfort that it would do the same.

Romanza Johnson is president of the Kentucky Retired Teachers Association.

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