Teacher protests in Frankfort - 2019

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Last year, thousands of Kentucky teachers left their classrooms to rally at the Capitol in Frankfort, forcing many school districts to close. Now the same pension proposal that sparked those protests is back on the table — and it could pass in the state Senate's budget plan.

The crowds of teachers weren't at the Capitol on Thursday, because the building remains closed to the public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Senate's budget proposal would add more than $1 billion extra dollars to the teacher's pension fund, but that money is contingent on lawmakers also approving changes to pension benefits for newly hired teachers.

The Senate budget chairman said structural change is needed for the system's long-term survival.

"The demographics of the life expectancies, versus when this system was initiated, have changed dramatically, and we have to recognize that," said Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, the Kentucky Senate budget chairman.

Eddie Campbell, the president of the Kentucky Education Association, said he's frustrated that the virus outbreak has hampered teachers' ability to express their concerns in-person at the Capitol.

"To be in this situation where they can't be present in the room — it feels like democracy is happening in the dark," he said.

But McDaniel refuted that lawmakers were trying to sneak the change through.

"Absolutely not, and certainly I wouldn't support trying to do so," he said.

House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect, said he has not seen the full proposal, but indicates it might not fly in the Statehouse.

"Funding the pensions the way they're supposed to be funded is very, very important to us, and I think we will make a stand on that," he said.

But beyond the pension controversy, the COVID-19 crisis threatens to derail the entire budget process. An economy in lockdown means less revenue for the state at a time when resources are being strained.

McDaniel acknowledged that lawmakers were making decisions in uncertain times.

"I don't think any of us know exactly what to think right now," he said. "And anyone who says that they do is simply not being honest."

Osborne agreed.

"It's a big concern," he said. "I think everybody knows that our economy is taking a hit right now and certainly, because of that, our revenues in the state are going to take a hit."

Ultimately, Kentucky Senate and House leaders will negotiate the final version of the budget, but the COVID-19 crisis may force them to return at some point to make changes.

Copyright 2020 by WDRB Media. All rights reserved.