Kentucky teachers protest pension cuts

After Kentucky lawmakers slid last-minute cuts to teachers' pensions into a piece of water treatment legislation last night, educators in the Bluegrass State are protesting

click to enlarge Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is expected to sign changes to teachers' pensions passed through the state's general assembly.
Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is expected to sign changes to teachers' pensions passed through the state's general assembly.

School was out for over 20 counties (including Campbell, Carroll and Gallatin) in Kentucky today as a massive wave of teachers called in and took the day off to protest state lawmakers’ moves to severely cut future teacher’s pension benefits.

Conservatives running the Kentucky General Assembly late last night passed pension reform measures tucked away last-minute into Senate Bill 151 — a piece of sewage water treatment legislation.

While the full details of the 291-page bill are still being combed through, the new policies will essentially make the already unappealing financial prospects of public educators even gloomier. Instead of entering a traditional pension plan, new teachers will sign on to a hybrid deal that is part-pension, part-401(k). The bill also takes away future teachers inviolable contract, meaning that the benefits they start with can be changed at any time without their say. It also prevents teachers from calculating unused sick days into their pension benefits and cuts death benefits by $5,000 for spouses. 

According to Republican House Member John “Bam” Carney, who introduced the bill and is a public school teacher himself, the changes will save $300 million over the course of 30 years. That sounds like a lot, but it’s barely a drop in the bucket considering Kentucky’s public retirement system has $41 billion in unfunded liabilities.

Critics say Carney’s estimation is merely guesswork and point out that the bill was introduced without actuarial analysis, a state requirement for bills that affect the state-administered retirement system. 

Democrat Attorney General Andy Beshear assured constituents in a video released on his personal platforms this morning that he will take the bill to court if Republican Governor Matt Bevin signs off on the bill.

All signs point to that court battle happening soon.

Bevin ran in 2015 on explicit promises to fix Kentucky’s deep pension trouble.

“Anyone who will receive a retirement check in the years ahead owes a deep debt of gratitude to these 71 men & women who did the right thing,” he tweeted recently, referring to General Assembly members who passed the pension reform bill.

Bevin tried to push pension-centered Senate Bill 1 through earlier this year but the proposed removal of retired teacher’s cost of living adjustments (an increase of 1.5 percent per year) along with the complete abolishment of new teachers pension plans caused enough upheaval in Frankfort to pump the brakes. 

Several state legislators, looking for other options, have argued that legalizing and taxing marijuana and/or casino gambling in the commonwealth would ease the retirement debts, but both measures have been struck down.

Teachers don’t seem to be easing up — perhaps inspired by recent teacher strikes in West Virginia that shuttered schools across the state and eventually won strikers better contracts. Striking is illegal for public employees in Kentucky, but protests look likely.

Next week is spring break for most schools in the state and Stephanie Winkler, current Kentucky Education Association president, used an afternoon news conference to call for a statewide rally in Frankfort on Monday morning, starting at 9 a.m.

“If we turn our backs on education, we turn our backs on our futures," Winkler warned. "We are at a crossroads here and if we don’t turn the right way it’ll be to our commonwealth’s detriment."

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