FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Teachers Jessica Page and John Leep III found themselves rallying for the same cause that brought their parents to Frankfort nearly 30 years ago to the day on Monday as they urged lawmakers to protect pension benefits for public workers.

In fact, they included a black-and-white photo of their parents, John Leep Jr. and Judy Leep, from the March 18, 1988, rally at the Capitol on a large sign they held and waved as more than 1,000 teachers and public employees chanted slogans like, “Find funding first,” “A pension is a promise,” and “Vote them out,” from the steps of the statehouse.

Monday’s rally comes as the General Assembly grapples with pension systems that have combined unfunded liabilities of more than $43 billion.

Legislative leaders say the massive pension debt is cause for reform and historic funded for the beleaguered retirement systems, but a planned vote on Senate Bill 1 – sponsored by Senate State and Local Government Committee Chairman Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro – was delayed Friday and referred back to Bowen’s committee following a similar protest in which teachers and other government employees swarmed the Capitol and voiced their opposition.

That show of force has the Leep siblings more energized than ever to continue fighting to protect retirement benefits like their parents, who were also teachers, did almost 30 years ago.

For John Leep III, Monday’s rally was about “fighting for the future of education.”

“We talk about the pensions and everything, but it really all goes back to the students, the kids,” the Rowan County teacher told WDRB News as speakers made their cases against SB 1. “If there’s not good teachers coming into the workforce, public education’s going to go by the wayside. One of the big things that attracts those teachers in is the promise of these pensions.”

SB 1, if passed, would place newly hired teachers into cash-balance pension accounts similar to those offered to new state workers.

It would also reduce cost-of-living adjustments for retired teachers from 1.5 percent annually to 1 percent unless the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System reaches a funding level of 90 percent and require those covered by KTRS to chip in an extra 1 percent of their pay toward health benefits if the system’s health fund is less than 25 percent funded, experiences three consecutive years of funding losses or falls by more than 10 percent over a two-year period.

Bowen has said the legislation will save the state an estimated $3.2 billion over 20 years if passed.

Those who descended on the Capitol Monday had their own reasons to oppose the proposed changes laid out in SB 1.

The extra money that could be required for health benefits from her paycheck is a primary concern for Trimble County teacher Aimee Roose, who carried a sign that read “Let me afford to keep teaching.” If she’s required to increase her contributions toward health care, Roose says she may consider leaving the classroom.

“I want to keep teaching, but I want to be able to have a stable living so that I can keep teaching,” she said.

Norma Wade retired after 34 years as a teacher and counselor in Mercer County, and she says lower cost-of-living adjustments will negatively affect her household.

Her husband David also taught in Mercer County, and she said the original version of SB 1 that called for cost-of-living reductions for a 12-year period would have cost her an estimated $65,000 in lost pension benefits.

“Even though we have things paid for because we’re retired, all the other bills keeping going up,” she said. “Your cable bill goes up, your electricity bill goes up, your groceries go up, your gas goes up in your car, all those keep going up.”

Page, who teachers in Henry County, said she and her brother are proud to go into education like their parents, but if the proposed pension changes go through, she and Leep, who don’t have children, will likely try to steer their future offspring into different fields.

“At this point and the way that it’s going I don’t think we’re going to want them to be teachers either, which is the saddest part,” Page said.

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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