GOP speaker says governor, others should tone down rhetoric

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s GOP House speaker criticized the state’s Republican governor on Tuesday for his comments about public school teachers, saying everyone has to “tone down the rhetoric” if they are to come together and save the state’s struggling public pension systems.

Gov. Matt Bevin said Friday that state workers, including teachers, were “hoarding sick days” and using them to boost their retirement benefits. Monday night, Bevin took questions from state workers on Facebook, including one about whether dramatic pension changes might prompt a wave of teacher retirements.

“If you happen to be a teacher who would walk out on your classroom in order to serve what’s in your own personal best interest at the expense of your children, you probably should retire,” Bevin said. “And yet I know for a fact that almost all of you teachers that are watching this don’t think that way.”

House Speaker Jeff Hoover told reporters Tuesday he was “disappointed” with Bevin’s comments, saying “he’ll have to answer for that.” He noted his wife has taught first grade for 25 years, and she does not know how many unused sick days she has. He said his wife often goes to work even when she is sick.

“She goes to work because for many of her kids every year, it’s the only time they will get a hug during the day,” he said. “I would encourage everyone out there to tone down the rhetoric, to tone down the hate and the comments but recognize we’ve got a serious problem and let’s all pull together and try to get it solved.”

Bevin declined to speak to reporters after an event in the state Capitol.

Kentucky’s pension system is among the worst funded in the country. It is at least $33 billion short of the money required to pay benefits over the next 30 years. A state-funded analysis of the system recommended lawmakers stop letting workers use leftover sick days to boost their retirement checks.

Some state workers can get service credit for unused sick days. But the teachers retirement system will pay teachers 30 percent of their unused sick days upon retirement. That money is added onto teachers’ salaries and used to calculate the size of their retirement checks. In the past year, teachers claiming unused sick days have increased their retirement checks by an average of $193.56 per month, Barnes said.

More than 10,700 teachers were eligible to retire as of June 30, 2016, the latest figures available. That’s about 1 out of every 5 teachers, according to Beau Barnes, general counsel of the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System. Barnes said retirement system officials urge teachers to work longer, saying “it’s good for the retirement system and it’s good for them.”

Bevin has said he plans to call a special session of the state legislature later this year. Hoover said Tuesday that session would likely be months away. He said legislative staff would need about a month to write the bill, and that he would insist lawmakers have another month to read and understand it.

“You can do the math and see that we are sometime away, in my opinion,” he said.

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