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‘SOTC’: Kentucky’s Pension Crisis Pits Teachers Versus Lawmakers

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — LEX 18’s politics and policy show, “State of the Commonwealth,” takes a deep dive this week into the commonwealth’s crushing pension crisis.

Speaking at his inauguration in 2015, Gov. Matt Bevin put pension funding front and center.

“We have the highest level of unfunded pension liability in America, but Kentucky is better than that,” he told the crowd in Frankfort.

Since then, Bevin has made it clear he wants changes to the state’s pension systems.

The result has been arguments between lawmakers and stakeholders, but especially teachers.

It can be hard to keep track of what’s happening when it comes to the battle over pensions.

Lawmakers say they’re trying to fix a system that’s doomed to failure. But teachers say they want what they’ve been promised.

And in the last year and a half, it has all come to a head.

Teachers went into 2018 knowing their pensions would be up for change, and they were ready to fight back. But the battle that ensued was something they did not expect.

“Find funding first. Find funding first,” protester chanted during days of unrest in Frankfort.

That’s the teachers’ demand: Before making cuts to pensions, lawmakers need to seek new funds.

“They’re having to do more and more with less and less, and the governor just said he’s gonna cut again,” said protester David Smith. “Well you can only cut so far.”

Lawmakers’ response was 2018’s Senate Bill 1, which they said would save almost $5 billion and ensure that teachers still have some type of pension system.

“We been through this process six months now — making countless hours, countless days, countless weeks, driving countless miles to get to where we are,” said former state Sen. Joe Bowen. “This is a good product. I for one really cannot find any fault with with what we’ve done.”

But the plan would have required cutting billions of dollars in benefit to teachers, and they quickly fired back.

In groups of thousands, teachers went to the Capitol to remind lawmakers they made a deal with the state. It’s called an inviolable contract, meaning lawmakers cannot legally take these promised benefits away.

“A promise is a promise. It has to be kept,” said teacher George McKee. “Our children know that. Our children know what a promise is. They know when you give your word, you don’t go back at it. But apparently, our state government doesn’t.”

The large protests worked. Senate Bill 1 was defeated with only days left in the legislative session. At first, it looked like teachers had won.

But then came Senate Bill 151. Originally a bill about sewers, lawmakers stripped that language and added pension reform. And the bill was moving through quickly. When it became clear lawmakers were going to vote on the bill, teachers again rushed to the Capitol.

The next day, 20 school districts across the commonwealth shut down as thousands of teachers called in sick. Instead of being in classrooms, many came to Frankfort in a show of force to the lawmakers.

And the battle over pensions no longer was just about what was in the bill, it was about how lawmakers were seeking to pass it.

“Putting it in a sewer bill shows these guys climbed out of the gutter,” said Debbie Webster, who supports the teachers. “We’re gonna send ’em back to the gutter.”

But instead of the gutter, it went to court. Attorney General Andy Beshear and lawyers for Bevin argued it all the way to the state Supreme Court.

In court, Beshear argued that lawmakers broke the rules because they did not read the bill three separate times, a requirement of the state’s constitution.

“The paper was still hot, and they said, ‘We’re going to vote on it right now,'” Beshear said in court.

The governor’s lawyers argued the readings weren’t required because the content of SB 151 was the same as the original pension bill.

“Legislators knew what they were voting on,” Steve Pitt, Bevin’s general counsel, argued. “They had ample opportunity going back to before the legislative session began knowing what was in Senate Bill 1, which became Senate Bill 151.”

But Beshear argued that only proved lawmakers were trying to pass the bill without giving the public a chance to weigh in on it.

“The public killed Senate Bill 1.” he said. “It was over. But this General Assembly and this governor tried to sneak something through.”

That argument won out. With days left in 2018, the Supreme Court of Kentucky decided the bill was passed illegally, meaning SB 151 was dead.

Bevin was incensed.

“This is a poke in the eye, a kick in the teeth and a stab in the back to our legislature,” he fumed.

Teachers knew this was not over. They figured the fight would continue when the 2019 legislative session began, but in a surprise move Bevin called a special session with only days left in the year.

“We have a legal and moral obligation to provide and deliver on the promises that we’ve made,” Bevin insisted.

But the attempt failed and the special session ended with no solution.

As the new year dawned, the pension fight was again at the forefront. A sickout was called. Several districts — including the state’s two largest, Louisville and Lexington — shut down as teachers again rallied in Frankfort.

“Are you kidding? Again? I thought we made this clear last time, but a lot of people didn’t show up to vote in November so here we are again,” said teacher Justin Terawood.

In some districts, school was off for several days. Some teachers stayed in Frankfort until the end of the session, fearful of last minute moves.

“They took that trust from us last year, so we’re watching closely,” said retired teacher Lydia Coffee. “We’ve made phone calls, done our emails, and hoping that they’ll listen.”

The session ended, again with no major changes made to pensions for public school teachers.

But the battle didn’t end.

“What we do not have the right to do is call out sick when we are not really sick,” said Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis.

A federal judge has refused to block subpoenas issued by Bevin’s administration into the teacher sickouts.

U.S. District Judge Danny Reees denied the temporary restraining order sought by Beshear.

The attorney general, who is hoping to face off with Bevin in the fall as a Democratic candidate for governor, said the ruling was a disappointment but said the case was far from over.

David Nichols

David Nichols

David is veteran journalist and online content editor.
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