FRANKFORT – A bill that supporters say would help reduce more than $40 billion in unfunded costs to the state’s pension systems received final passage today by a 22-15 vote in the Kentucky Senate.
The legislation, found in Senate Bill 151, was amended today to add pension provisions that would place future teachers in a hybrid “cash balance” plan. It’s similar to the state’s retirement plan for state employees hired as of 2014. Another section of SB 151 would prevent current teachers and workers from applying sick days toward retirement eligibility.
Cost of living raises for current retired teachers would remain unchanged in the bill, as would the benefit calculation and years of service required for retirement of current teachers or state employees. And sick days could still be accrued for use by active teachers and employees.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said SB 151 wasn’t going to harm public education in Kentucky as implied by critics of the legislation.
“I would urge everyone to take a deep breath and not buy into the talking points and hyperbole,” he said. “This is good news for teachers – current, retired and future – because it puts Kentucky’s pension systems on a path to sustainability.”
Thayer said the bill would reduce the risk for taxpayers who are bearing most of the burden of the cost of fully funding pension obligations.
Sen. Jared Carpenter, R-Berea, said SB 151 was an attempt to preserve the pensions for future public workers while honoring the obligations to current workers.
“I think this is fair,” he said. “It is reasonable. It is the right thing to do. I think just to say ‘no’ for the fact of saying ‘no’ is just trying to win a political party or political debate. I got friends on both sides.”
Among those voting against SB 151 in the Senate was Minority Floor Leader Ray S. Jones II, D-Pikeville.
“If our forefathers who served in the halls of the state senate and state house of representatives could see where we are as a commonwealth, they would be appalled,” he said in reference to the pension provisions being added in an amendment. “This is not the way democracy is supposed to work. Democracy depends on the free exchange of ideas and consideration of the rights and opinions of others.”
Sen. Johnny Ray Turner, D-Prestonsburg, also spoke against the measure.
“Teaching is a very rewarding but difficult job,” he said. “I believe I’m the only one in the Kentucky State Senate that has taught at the elementary level, high school level and coached several sports at many different levels. I always believed that you should treat people the way that you want to be treated. And I believe everyone in this body is here to do the right thing. But I don’t believe anyone here would want to be treated the way Senate Bill 151 is going to treat our state employees and teachers.”
Earlier in the day, Rep. John Carney, R-Campbellsville, who presented the bill before the full House, said SB 151 would not violate the state’s “inviolable contract” – statutory language put into law decades ago to assure state employees and teachers that most of their retirement benefits cannot be reduced. It would, however, allow the state to make changes to retirement plan benefits that take effect under SB 151 later this year.
Carney called SB 151 a “first step” to tackling the state’s underfunded pension liabilities when the bill passed the House on a vote of 49-46.
This bill “is not perfect. No legislation is,” Carney told his colleagues in the House. “But this legislation will ensure solvency of the retirement systems for years to come.”
Among those voting against SB 151 in the House was Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort. The retired Kentucky public school teacher said Kentucky teachers and state employees would be hurt by the legislation.
“I urge the members of this body to vote against this bill for the future of our Commonwealth, for the future of our students, for the future of public education and public employees,” said Graham.
SB 151 is sponsored by Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, who is also the primary sponsor of SB 1 – a well-publicized pension bill that was introduced in the Senate earlier this month.
During the Senate debate, Bowen emphasized that SB 151 should not be perceived as an attack on teachers or any public worker.
“This is an attempt to salvage the pension systems,” he said. “This is an attempt to keep the promises that have been made, and we are only doing it because we do respect those people that walk into our classrooms each and every day and go above and beyond. And we do appreciate those folks who work for us in state government.”