Kentucky teachers protest pension bill outside the state Capitol

Teachers from across Kentucky gathered in Frankfort to rally against the pension bill that impacts benefits for many state employees.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky lawmakers will be heading back to the drawing board on pension reform when the 2019 legislative session gavels in Jan. 8 after some tumult during the holiday season.

The state Supreme Court ruled the pension reform law passed by the General Assembly this year unconstitutional on procedural grounds Dec. 13, and a hastily-called special session by Gov. Matt Bevin days later ground to a halt without a replacement bill after just two days.

Next year’s legislative session will provide a sense of how influential Kentucky educators will be over the next two years with issues like pension reform and public charter school funding on the horizon.

Thousands of teachers protested against the pension reform bill at the Capitol during this year’s session. Across the state, many appeared on ballots challenging the very lawmakers who voted for the now defunct law.

But their electoral success was limited, giving a number of Republican legislators who survived such challenges comfort in forging ahead with their agendas.

Rep. Bam Carney, a Campbellsville Republican who was elected majority floor leader for the next two years, said three general camps have emerged in the House Republican caucus: those who want to pass a pension reform bill similar to Senate Bill 151, those who want to go further in reform efforts and those who don’t want to take up pension reform at all next year.

Polling the 61-member caucus, which will feature 16 first-term representatives elected in November, and consulting with Senate Republican leaders will be key in determining how House GOP leaders proceed during next year’s 30-day session, he said. All eyes will be on the lower chamber after the House failed even to vote on a pension reform bill during this month’s special session.

“I think that’s an issue that will take some time to sort through,” said Carney, who currently chairs the House Education Committee. “You have a lot of members who want to revisit where we were at with Senate Bill 151 when we set those guidelines. You have some members who want to go further, and then you have some members who maybe want to just let things ride for a little bit.”

“Right now I think if anybody says that they know the definitive answer on any of those, I think that would be a little bit of a stretch,” he added.

For Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim, standing pat and pumping more money into the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System is the ideal option. He noted that the pension system’s funded status has improved to nearly 58 percent thanks to lawmakers dedicating more money to KTRS and other public pension plans in recent budgets. At the close of the 2016 fiscal year, which covered Bevin’s first months in office, KTRS had a funded ratio of 54.6 percent.

“We’re on an upward trajectory, and there’s every reason to anticipate that as long as the state keeps making its required payments … our status will improve,” McKim said.

Bevin, however, doesn’t share McKim’s optimism. He’s painted Kentucky’s combined $43 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, among the highest in the country, as a looming financial crisis for the state.

“For the sake of our financial future, we must believe and demand that the General Assembly will return to Frankfort in January with renewed focus and determination to fully address Kentucky’s pension crisis,” Bevin said in a statement after lawmakers adjourned the special session Dec. 18.

If lawmakers pursue amending the state’s pension offerings for the second consecutive session, McKim said he hoped lawmakers would consult with educators and employee groups to build consensus on a path forward on pension reform.

SB 151, which was opposed by the Kentucky Education Association, JCTA and others, would have moved future teachers into new retirement plans that blend elements of defined-benefit and defined-contribution pensions. For those currently in the system, their unused sick days, which can be counted toward retirement eligibility, would have been capped at a certain date.

Charter school funding

Teachers could also see a renewed push to fund public charter schools in Kentucky, one of Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis’s legislative priorities for next year’s session and an item that many educators say would siphon needed tax dollars from traditional public schools.

After failing to pass such a funding mechanism this year, the idea of looking at options in the upcoming session has been endorsed by Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester. Carney says there are some in the House Republican caucus who are interested in the topic as well, including him.

Bevin is also a proponent of charter schools, testifying for the legislation that ultimately became law in 2017 and made Kentucky the 44th state with such schools. Charters are schools that are publicly funded, privately managed and exempt from a number of laws and regulations governing traditional public schools, giving them more autonomy in instruction.

Still, Carney reiterated that House Republican leaders would need input from the caucus on how, or whether, to move the issue forward. One idea he floated as a possibility to get more legislators on board: setting some sort of population qualifier before charter schools can open in a county.

The General Assembly legalized charter schools during the 2017 session, months after Republicans wrested control of the House from Democrats for the first time in nearly a century.

“I certainly think we have to fund options for children and families to make choices that they feel best fit their needs, whether that be via charter schools or some other mechanism,” said Carney, who sponsored the charter school bill. “Ninety percent of our students, I feel, are always going to attend traditional public schools, and most of those schools can meet those needs. But we have families out here looking for options that frankly deserve them.”

Lewis, Kentucky’s education commissioner, agrees.

Charter school funding is one piece of his agency’s legislative agenda, and he stressed that other priorities for the upcoming session, such as giving school districts more flexibility in firing ineffective teachers and allowing superintendents to hire principals rather than school councils, are equally important in improving education for students throughout the state.

Without funding, Kentucky’s charter school law has been rendered “useless” so far, he said.

“I don’t believe they ever passed (charter school legislation) with the intention of not providing a funding mechanism,” Lewis said.

But Lewis and others are in the dark on whether lawmakers will ultimately take up charter school funding in the upcoming session. He reiterated his belief that spelling out how charters would get money should not be considered an appropriation measure, which requires three-fifths approval from each chamber.

 “At this time of the year as we’re preparing for the legislative session, I think many of us in Frankfort are just like folks outside of Frankfort,” Lewis said. “All we can do is guess. I’m hopeful whether it’s this session or a future session that the General Assembly does decide to take the issue up again.”

Tiffany Dunn, an English as a second language teacher at Lassiter Middle School and co-founder of Save Our Schools Kentucky, and McKim remain optimistic that charter school funding will not be passed by lawmakers in the upcoming 30-day session.

Dunn said that based on her group’s talks with lawmakers, she has a sense that school choice measures like charter school funding won’t go far in next year’s session.

“The word that we’re getting from them is that they don’t really have a tolerance for scholarship tax credits at this point and they don’t for charter school funding either,” Dunn said.

If lawmakers want to pursue charter school funding, they'll have to maneuver legislation to Bevin's desk in 30 days.

"It's probably not a session where you're going to change the world for anything that requires funding and expenditures," McKim said.

Electoral consequences

Exactly how much deference Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate majorities will give teachers in the sessions ahead remains to be seen.

Even before legislators passed SB 151, dozens of educators filed to run for seats in the General Assembly. In the aftermath of SB 151’s passage, a few more filed to run as write-in candidates.

But despite the surge in political interest from teachers and the fervor surrounding pension reform, only 11 candidates with education backgrounds were successful in the Nov. 6 elections.

What’s more, Republicans retained super majorities in both chambers. The Democratic super PAC Kentucky Family Values benefited from significant contributions from PACs for KEA, JCTA and the National Education Association – $300,000, $40,000 and $250,000, respectively, according to Kentucky Registry of Election Finance records – that Carney alluded to in a phone interview with WDRB News.

Those developments, Carney says, have put lawmakers who voted for and ran on pension reform more at ease heading into next year’s legislative session.

“The results of the election validate the policies of our caucus that we’ve tried to pass over the last two years not only around education reforms, but also on job creation and other things,” he said. “I do think that some in the education community, what I would call a silent majority, sit back and realize and agree that some things need to be change.”

“I think that should give us confidence in the policies that we’re trying to promote,” he added.

Dunn and McKim see things differently. Dunn says Save Our Schools Kentucky has made significant inroads with lawmakers since it formed in 2017 but needs to recruit more pro-education Republicans to seek office if it wants to make an impact politically.

“Our success was not necessarily winning elections,” she said. “It was forming relationships with legislators and getting people involved.”

From his perspective, McKim doesn’t see the influence of teachers waning at the Capitol.

“I think that (House Republicans) will be interested in finding common ground on what makes sense going forward,” McKim said.

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

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