Bipartisan surprise as Ky. Senate sends teacher pension bill back to committee

Published: Mar. 9, 2018 at 5:50 PM EST
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A bill that could have cut an estimated $65,000 in retirement benefits for teachers over 20 years is back in committee.

The Kentucky Senate was expected to vote on Senate Bill 1 Friday, but instead sent it back to committee, a move that surprised many on both sides of the aisle.

The problem is that Kentucky's pension fund faces a $41 billion deficit over the next 30 years. Senate Bill 1 looks to fill that gap by making most state agencies cut 6 percent and then cutting retirement benefits for teachers. Those benefits are part of an inviolable contract that many, including the state's attorney general, say cannot be broken.

The bill would cut the annual cost-of-living adjustment or COLA by 33 percent, from 1.5 percent annually to 1 percent.

By a 27-11 majority, Republicans firmly control the Senate. Until Friday, Senate leadership seemed determined to do pass the bill over the objections of many, especially teachers.

It's a bill that drew hundreds of teachers to Frankfort to loudly protest Friday.

State Sen. Brandon Smith (R), whose district includes Johnson County, opposes the bill in its current form. He said the caucus took a blind ballot Friday and by a single vote, the measure didn't have enough to pass. But he said there wasn't arm-twisting afterward.

He woke up thinking the measure would pass, otherwise it wouldn’t have been on the agenda.

"This bill we were concerned about is probably dead,” he said. “Sending it back to committee will allow a lot of legislators like myself and other senators that would like to make changes to the bill, address the COLA."

He expects major changes to happen, including new revenue streams considered.

But State Sen. Robin Webb (D), whose district is Boyd, Carter and Greenup counties, isn’t so sure.

"I assume from years of past experience that there will be some tail twisting going on this weekend to see if they can't remedy that. There may be changes. But I don't think they can put lipstick on that pig to make me vote for it."

She said all the Democratic senators had floor speeches prepared and were all going to vote no until the bill was sent to committee.

Sen. Webb believes the teacher's strike helped play a role.

"I think it was very encouraging to everyone based on the West Virginia experience,” she said. “I think it made a difference to some of (the Republican lawmakers) today."

But Sen. Smith disagrees.

"I didn't hear people talking about it back there. The dynamics for me were rural against more urban areas. I saw a lot of resistance from the legislators in the rural part of the state."

The Senate has adjourned for the weekend.

Republican leaders say Senate Bill 1 would save taxpayers $3.2 billion over the next 20 years and stabilize the fund, which is one of the worst public pension systems in the country.

Meanwhile, Gov. Matt Bevin (R) has committed 15 percent of his budget or $3.3 billion to the pension system, partly funded with 6 percent cuts to most state agencies.

“The fight isn’t over,” said Sen. Webb.

Attorney General Andy Beshear (D) has said the bill is illegal because it alters an inviolable contract and will likely lose any court challenge.