Matt Bevin: Governor's wage decision no different from private sector employers

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin sent an e-mail to all 6,000 Jefferson County Public School teachers at their official school accounts early Monday morning promising to “give current and future teachers a new source of income when they retire" if they elect him governor on Tuesday.

The move raises questions about the use of the teachers’ public email accounts for political purposes.

The Kentucky Democratic Party called Bevin’s action “apparently illegal” while a law professor at the University of Kentucky said it’s “close to the line.”

Bevin’s campaign told WDRB News on Monday that the "democrats know that the law wasn’t broken, and the Kentucky Democratic party should stop lying.  Matt Bevin will continue to ask all Kentuckians for their vote ahead of tomorrow’s election and we will continue to correct Jack Conway’s lies."

The email, which was also sent to educators in Bowling Green last week, violates the state's election law, according to the Kentucky Democratic Party, which has demanded that Bevin "immediately cease and desist its ongoing and apparently illegal activities coercing state teachers’ by using state email accounts to promise them benefits in return for their vote in the general election."

Mark Guilfoyle, a lawyer who previously served as general counsel, budget director and cabinet secretary for Governor Brereton Jones, said that Kentucky State Statute 121.150 prohibits a candidate from soliciting a contribution of money or services from a state employee if it is specifically targeted at that employee because they are a public employee.

Guilfoyle’s written opinion on the matter was shared with WDRB News Monday by the Democratic Party.

In his email to teachers, titled "Open Letter to Kentucky's Educators," Bevin states he will not allow the "raiding of our public trusts to cover shortages in the general fund": 

"If we continue down the road we are on, as my opponent would like, experts predict we are 3-4 years from pension collapse," the letter sent to the teachers reads. "That means that if you are retired and receiving a public pension, you could be 3-4 years from losing the benefits promised to you. Without action, the checks will not continue to clear the bank.

I am running for Governor to make sure this does not happen.

We have a moral and legal obligation to fulfill our pension promises to current employees and retirees. My opponent has spread lies throughout the state about my stance on our pension plans, including KTRS, despite the fact that I am the only one in this race who has a plan to save them."

Joshua Douglas, a professor at the University of Kentucky who teaches and researches election law, civil procedure, constitutional law and judicial decision making, told WDRB News Monday that Bevin is "close to the line here, at least on the solicitation of contributions part, but in my view he probably has not crossed it with these emails."

"Although I think these emails are somewhat unseemly, they probably do not violate Kentucky law," Douglas said. "I do not see how the Bevin email promises anything specific beyond normal campaign rhetoric.  Bevin is not promising actual funds; he is saying that his policies will ensure that teachers have retirement funds available."

Secondly, Douglas also said nothing in the email "asks for money or services; it is asking for the teachers' vote."

"This is not a direct plea for contributions, which is what this campaign finance provision is about," he said.

"At least to my knowledge, there is nothing that prohibits Bevin from using these email addresses," Douglas said. "Teachers themselves are not supposed to use their email addresses for direct campaign purposes...I am not aware of a prohibition on candidates sending an email to a government-owned email address."

In an email sent out by Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt on Monday, he reminds teachers of the state's acceptable use policy that governs the Kentucky Department of Education and many districts provide that agency devices and/or digital commerce activities must not be used to knowingly transmit, subscribe to, or store any data that is for political purposes."

"It has come to the attention of KDE that several districts have received e-mails to all staff from a political campaign regarding the Kentucky Teacher Retirement System issue," Pruitt said. 

Pruitt said if teachers have received the communication or if you just have general questions about the KTRS issue, we recommend that you visit the KTRS Funding Workgroup website: http://governor.ky.gov/KTRS-Funding/Pages/default.aspx.

On the topic of the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System, which is currently underfunded, Bevin has said he believes the state should "freeze the existing plans exactly as they are" and come up with a different solution, suggesting that Kentucky move to a defined contribution plan.

On the topic of the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System, which is currently underfunded, Bevin has said he believes the state should "freeze the existing plans exactly as they are" and come up with a different solution, suggesting that Kentucky move to a defined contribution plan.

David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Kentucky Democratic Party, told WDRB on Monday that in addition to what his party believes is a violation of state law, the "substance of his email to teachers is false — Bevin’s plan would cost more and would actually jeopardize retirements."

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

Copyright 2015 by WDRB News. All rights reserved.