The year is 1976; the place is Carson Elementary. Picture a small pipsqueak, a six-year-old overachieving second-grader sitting among the colossal fourth grade students in Ms. Cannon’s math class. Ms. Cannon stood in the front of the small classroom, tall and imposing, with long fingernails and a stern look that let everyone know not to cross her. Unfortunately, I did cross her. I was the smallest and the youngest person in that class and took to overcompensating for my fish-out-of-water feeling by being overtly chatty; something that Ms. Cannon did not tolerate.
After a particularly distracting monologue by yours truly (some things never change), I looked up to notice Ms. Cannon pointing her exceptionally long fingernails at me and beckoning me forward with a stern “hey you!” She did not even know my name, she didn’t have to. I had broken one of Ms. Cannon’s rules and was about to pay the price. She gathered me up by my shirt and gave me a thorough dressing down about her expectations for the class and how my behavior directly opposed them. Now, because of my young age, she could have pulled me aside, assuaged my nerves with platitudes and niceties, but instead, and luckily for me in retrospect, she treated me just like everyone else. I learned an important lesson about teachers that day: a good teacher tells you what you need to hear, not always what you want to hear.
Each of us probably has a Ms. Cannon story of our own, some teacher, peer, or mentor taking us aside and telling us what we needed to know, even if we did not want to hear it. The remainder of this editorial will continue in the spirit of the Ms. Cannons of the world by talking honestly about the teacher retirement issue and presenting facts because the truth matters in this case, even if we may not want to hear it.
The truth is House Bill 4, as originally drafted, had no chance or intention of being passed by both chambers and signed by the Governor. In fact, a bonding expert in Governor Beshear’s office explained to us that it would be impossible for the state to sell $3.3 billion in bonds in the one year proposed by House Bill 4. Further, it would be very difficult to sell even $1 billion of bonds in one year. He went on to outline how selling just $1 billion in bonds would lower the Commonwealth’s credit rating and increase the cost of operating state government. At that moment it became perfectly clear that House Bill 4 was nothing more than a cynical move by Democrats in the House of Representatives to gain a political advantage by harming Republicans. So, the Senate decided to develop a new proposal to move the process forward.
It is important to remember that the Senate Republican caucus was the first to issue a clarion call for pension reform, so, we recognize the danger the KTRS unfunded liability poses both to individual teachers and to the fiscal health of the Commonwealth. That is why the Senate did not agree to recklessly issue $3.3 billion in bonds during the last legislative session without exploring all options and unintended consequences of that action.
Before I explain the Senate proposal, let me first be perfectly clear on several key points:
1. No retired teacher is in danger of failing to receiving their monthly check. The KTRS can continue to meet their obligations for the next 20 years,
2. I know teachers do not receive Social Security,
3. I understand the KTRS has an unfunded liability and has been selling assets,
4. I understand the KTRS needs an influx of money to help close the unfunded liability,
5. I understand structural changes need to be made to the KTRS to ensure a stable retirement for active teachers and future teachers;
6. I am prepared to do the work and make the hard decisions to make sure retired teachers continue to receive their checks on time.
Just before the House Democrats walked away from the House Bill 4 negotiating table, the Senate team was prepared to offer a plan which immediately infused $50 million into the KTRS and created a task force of legislators to develop a fiscally sound plan to fix the KTRS. This $50 million was a responsible, good-faith proposal to demonstrate the General Assembly’s commitment to enacting a workable solution. Unfortunately, this proposal was never given a public hearing or a vote because the House Democrats chose to shut down the discussions on House Bill 4.
Last month, House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover (R- Jamestown) sent Governor Beshear a letter urging the appointment of a bipartisan task force to develop a fiscally sound plan to fix the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System (KTRS). The Republican members of the State Senate are pleased Representative Hoover has joined with us and the growing number of voices calling for a transparent process to the save the KTRS. We encourage Governor Beshear to use the bully pulpit of his office in his remaining months as Governor and become a driving force for reform by establishing a task force much like the bipartisan group which developed the plan to reform the Kentucky Employees Retirement System.
Despite attempts to turn teachers’ retirements into a political issue, I remain focused on doing the right thing. While I remain hopeful Governor Beshear does appoint a task force, my colleagues and I in the Senate will continue to work toward identifying a fiscally sound plan to save the Kentucky Teacher Retirement System.
# # #