Facing a groundswell of opposition from public workers for his proposed pension changes, Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin compared them to drowning victims on Tuesday in that "you just need to knock them out and drag them to shore."
Bevin's comments came during a live interview with Brian Thomas on WKRC in Cincinnati. He said the state must make changes to the pension system or it will collapse, risking the retirements of hundreds of thousands of people and their loved ones.
"I do not want to see that happen to retired state workers. And yet I am being fought in some instances by the very people we are trying to save," Bevin said. "It's like saving a drowning victim, Brian. They are fighting you, fighting you, pulling you under. You just need to knock them out and drag them to shore. It's for their own good."
It's the latest example of Bevin criticizing state workers for criticizing him, often using violent language. Earlier this year, thousands of teachers across the state marched at the state Capitol to protest the changes to the retirement system, causing more than 30 school districts to close. Bevin had said he guaranteed the closure caused a child to be sexually assaulted because they had to be left alone while their single parent went to work. Bevin later apologized for those comments.
Bevin's term ends next year. He has not said if he will run for re-election. Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, says he is running for governor. He has built his campaign around support for public workers, especially public school teachers. His running mate, Jacqueline Coleman, is an assistant principal at Nelson County High School.
"Gov. Bevin's comments are offensive," Beshear posted on his campaign Twitter account." Our public servants aren't drowning victims, they are hardworking men and women who help our families every day. It's time to restore decency in Frankfort."
Later in the day, Bevin told host Terry Meiners on WHAS radio his comments were not "specific to individuals but was a comparison from one situation to the next."
"It was an analogy. I would encourage people to look up the word analogy and look at examples of when these things are used," Bevin said.
Kentucky has one of the worst funded pension systems in the country. Actuaries project the state is at least $40 billion short of the money it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years. Bevin and other Republicans say the system needs structural changes. Earlier this year, Bevin signed a law that would require new teacher hires to be put into a hybrid plan and would restrict how teachers use sick days to calculate their retirement benefits.
A state judge earlier this year blocked the law from taking effect, ruling lawmakers violated the constitution with the process they used to pass it. Bevin has appealed that ruling, and the state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case next month.
Teachers and other public workers say lawmakers need to find new revenue for the system. Beshear has promised to lead an effort to expand gambling in the state and use the new tax money exclusively for pensions. Bevin has criticized this approach, noting it would never generate enough money to dig the state out of its hole.