FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — In a rare public rebuke, Kentucky’s top House leader on Wednesday chastised fellow Republican Gov. Matt Bevin for criticizing teachers who have mobilized to oppose a plan to revamp one of the nation’s worst-funded public pension plans.
Acting House Speaker David Osborne told reporters that the governor’s remarks were “inappropriate” and “show a lack of understanding of the people who are impacting the lives of young people in our state.”
In an interview on WVLC radio, Bevin said Tuesday that teachers opposing the pension changes were “ignorant” and were “throwing a temper tantrum.” He said if protesting teachers get what they wish, there won’t be a pension system for the next generation. He called that “remarkably selfish and shortsighted.” He also said teachers protesting the pension bill would be like people during World War II protesting rationing of food and steel to help the troops.
“It’s about just straight up wanting more than your fair share,” Bevin said.
Osborne said Wednesday that the governor deserves credit for seeking greatly increased state funding to support the pension plans. But he said Bevin’s comments about teachers on Tuesday and in recent months have made it much more difficult for lawmakers to pass a pension bill.
“You know, it’s a problem that quite frankly has clouded this entire debate over pensions,” Osborne said. “When you make policy arguments personal, it makes it very difficult to talk about facts.”
Bevin later posted a link to the full radio interview on his Twitter account, saying: “I am the only governor whose budget has fully funded the pension system. If you want the truth, listen for yourself and don’t let other people mislead you.”
The plan to overhaul Kentucky’s public pension systems stalled last week in the Senate. Hundreds of teachers jamming the halls of the state Capitol cheered when the GOP-led Senate decided not to vote on the bill. The measure was sent back to a committee that met Wednesday but didn’t take up the pension bill.
“I think it has a very limited and difficult path forward at this point in time,” Senate President Robert Stivers told reporters on Wednesday.
Asked what could be done to save the bill, he replied: “Not sure.”
The measure would cut benefits for some retired teachers while making structural changes some lawmakers say are necessary to save the retirement system from collapse. Supporters tout it as a way to reap an estimated $3.2 billion in taxpayer savings over the next 20 years.
But Osborne told reporters Wednesday it’s premature to conclude there’s no hope for the bill.
“I think that there is still an interest in our caucus to addressing the pension issue. I don’t know exactly what that will look like in the long run,” the Prospect Republican said.
Most of the bill’s savings would come from temporary cuts to the annual cost-of-living raises for retired teachers, who are not eligible to receive Social Security benefits. The raises would be restored once the system is 90 percent funded. Currently, the system is 56 percent funded.
Also, all newly hired teachers hired would be placed in a new retirement plan that shifts most of the risk from the state to the employees. Current teachers with less than 20 years of experience would have a new retirement formula that would reward them with more generous benefits if they work longer. And no teacher would be able to accumulate unused sick days to boost their retirement checks.
Kentucky has one of the nation’s worst-funded public pension plans. The state is at least $41 billion short of what it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years. Lawmakers have committed to putting $3.3 billion into the pension system over the next two years to keep it solvent, prompting plans for budget cuts across most state agencies.
Stivers, a Manchester Republican, said Wednesday that the Senate will “do the best we can” to provide the pension funding that Bevin requested.
“If we don’t, the unfunded liability will even become greater and a tougher problem,” he said.
The Senate is working on its version of the next two-year state budget. The GOP-led House has passed its plan. A conference committee will meet in the closing days of the session to try to iron out differences. Wednesday was day 49 of the 60-day session.