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Pension Bill Meets With Pushback In First Hearing

Josh James
Teacher and state employee groups line the hallways leading to the committee room where lawmakers heard testimony on Senate Bill 1 on Feb. 28, 2018.

The first hearing on a pension reform bill in Frankfort drew a hostile response from teachers and other state employees Wednesday.

Pensioners packed committee rooms, hallways, and overflow areas wearing stickers and holding signs reading "I Love My Public School" and "A Pension is a Promise." The resulting hour-long meeting saw chairman Sen. Joe Bowen battle with an animated and vocal crowd, who called out for legislators to raise revenue and fund the system.

Yet no vote took place, as lawmakers await a revised version and further financial analysis.

The expected committee substitute makes a few notable changes. While the original scaled back cost-of-living adjustments by half for retired teachers over 12 years, new language sets the increases at 1 percent until the system is 90 percent funded.

But those alterations did little to reassure retired educator Missy Edwards, who says after 33 years of service the cuts will leave her in poverty.

"I'm still not happy," she told WUKY. "They're cutting the throats of teachers. Plus they're cutting the throat of students."

Following the meeting, Sen. Bowen defended the plan, saying any lawmaker who votes against it will land on the wrong side of history.

"We're working to save their systems," the chairman said. "We don't want these systems to languish and fail, but if we fail to act that's in fact what's going to happen."

The senator said the committee will meet again for a vote on the revised bill. And teachers say they'll be back too - and in greater numbers.

Legal Questions

As teachers and other public employees descended on Frankfort, the state's attorney general also took issue with the bill in a letter challenging its legality.

Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear has identified at least 21 ways he believes the pension bill runs afoul of the law. In a statement, the state's top lawyer said Senate Bill 1, which seeks to stabilize retirement systems through increased funding and cuts to benefits, violates the state's unbreakable contract with public employees. Beshear offered examples.

"Things like cutting the guaranteed cost-of-living for teachers. Things like changing how state troopers and state and county employees can use sick leave, when they go to work even though they're feeling sick because they know there's nobody who will step up and take their place," he listed.

Bill sponsor Joe Bowen said it's unfortunate that the AG is weighing in at the eleventh hour after months of discussion on the issue. And Sen. President Robert Stivers said lawmakers had received assurances from Kentucky Teachers Retirement System general counsel Beau Barnes that "virtually all of the things that we have talked about here... were permissible. So we have documents totally what we believe to the contrary of the attorney general."

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.
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