Thousands of teachers across Kentucky have protested against proposed cuts to their pension benefits in recent weeks, and last Wednesday more than 60 of the state’s schools closed while their staff attended a rally at the capitol building in Frankfort. On the heels of the teachers’ strike in West Virginia, Kentucky teachers are effectively beating back an attack on public workers — and they plan to continue to fight.
The proposed cuts emerged from a months-long GOP political push. Last October, Kentucky’s Republican Governor Matt Bevin pushed an even more draconian plan, which he called “Keeping the Promise,” aimed at “saving” the state’s pension system. Bevin’s plan would have forced workers and teachers to enter into a 401(k)-type system and pay an extra 3 percent to access their retiree health benefits. Bevin intended to call a special session to implement the changes.
The governor’s plan was immediately criticized by teachers and other workers who would have been impacted by the changes, as well as by Democratic lawmakers in the state. “This is purely a move touted by ultra-conservative groups across the nation to privatize state services, remove a skilled state workforce and drive down wages for our future educators,” said Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Rep. Sannie Overly in a statement at the time.
Brent McKim, the president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA), told In These Times that resistance to the legislation developed quickly as “community forums were organized all over the state and legislators were invited to attend.”
As a result of the backlash, Bevin’s special session never occurred.
But in February, Senate Bill 1 was introduced to the legislative session. Kentucky Republicans had scrapped the most controversial elements of Bevin’s plan — the 401(k) system and the 3 percent increase for benefits. But the bill still includes significant cuts for educators, slashing retired teachers’ yearly cost-of-living raises from 1.5 percent to 1 percent, and using the money to fund the state’s pension system. This change would remain in effect until the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System was 90 percent funded. As The Lexington Herald-Leader has reported, if it took 20 years to reach 90 percent, that would mean a teacher who retires at the age of 59 and lives until the age of 83 would lose $65,019.
“It wasn’t as bad as it was originally,” said McKim, “but it was still unacceptable.”
During a local radio interview on March 13, Bevin dismissed protesting teachers as “selfish” and “ignorant,” comparing them to people who hoarded rations during World War II. “This would be like people having mass demonstrations about, ‘No I want my butter, I want my sugar, I’m going to keep all my steel and my rubber and my copper, and to heck with the rest of you people, you better keep giving me mine,’” said Bevin. “That’s what it is, it’s the most remarkable commentary about who we are in modern times. It’s just straight up about wanting more than your fair share.”
After Bevin was widely criticized for these comments, he released a Facebook video insisting that he has “tremendous respect for those of you who are teaching.” He claimed that he never intended to cause hurt and pleaded with workers to accept a pension overhaul before all the money dries up.
In the video, Bevin estimated that all the money would be tapped within 12 to 15 years. But advocates like Jason Bailey, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, contend that Bevin’s numbers are way off. “The claim that the teachers’ plan is going to run out of money in 12 to 15 years is just false,” Bailey told Louisville Courier Journal. “The actuarial analysis that was just put out shows that if we just fund the plan without any changes to benefits … it will improve, and in 15 years it will be about 73 percent funded.”
Even some critics of Senate Bill 1 readily admit that Kentucky’s overall pension system has major problems. Kentucky has the worst-funded pensions in the entire country, as the state’s system is $31.2 billion in debt.
However, many say the money could easily be made up by taxing corporations rather than slashing from the public sector. “Tax reform is the answer,” Brian O’Neill, the spokesperson for Kentucky Public Pension Coalition, told In These Times. “They are ready to slash benefits, but they won’t look at increasing taxes. We lose billions every year to tax subsidies and corporate tax breaks.”
A 2017 study by Good Jobs First backs up O’Neill’s assertion. The investigation concludes that the total of Kentucky’s corporate subsidies, official tax breaks and unofficial tax dodging amounts to around $580 million annually. The yearly taxpayer cost for funding the retirement benefits of public employees is only about 69 percent of that number. “They say the system is unsustainable,” said O’Neill. “Well, this is part of that. The issue is real, but it’s a manufactured crisis.”
McKim said that Kentucky teachers draw inspiration from West Virginia’s strike, but explained that a statewide walkout was just “one tool in the toolbox.” He said teachers are not ruling out any option, but are currently committed to applying a “full-court press” to lawmakers throughout the state. One of the current methods of applying this pressure is for teachers to protest outside of Bowen Tire Company in Owensboro. State Sen. Joe Bowen, who sponsored Senate Bill 1, is a partner in that business. In a radio interview on March 20, Bevin said those protesters had a “thug mentality.”
Kentucky’s legislative session ends on April 13, and even Republicans are admitting that the pension overhaul probably won’t get passed by then. The Senate’s majority Republicans spent March 9 discussing the bill while protesters chanted outside the chamber, “A pension is a promise!” and, “You vote now, we vote later!” When it was announced that the vote would be postponed, the assembled teachers cheered. “The votes were not there,” admitted GOP Sen. Tom Buford. “They didn’t have them. And I think it’s over for this session. Things got off to a slow start on this bill in October, and boy, did it taper off fast.”