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Teacher Discontent Swells in Kentucky Over Proposed Cuts to Benefits

Kentucky Education Association

Teacher Jessica Page was showing her central Kentucky elementary school students how to play the recorder last Friday while fearing the worst from state Senate deliberations in the capital city: lawmakers have begun considering potential reforms to the state's woefully underfunded public pension system, and cutting some benefits for retired teachers was among leading possibilities.

But instead, after hours of closed-door meetings punctuated by the chanting of hundreds of teachers protesting Friday at the Capitol, lawmakers backed down and sent the bill to a committee for possible changes. It was one of near daily protests that are continuing this week.

Page had video of the recent protests on her computer, and her students had questions.

"What are they fighting for? What are those people yelling? And I had to tell them, a pension is a promise," Page said. "And then my kids starting chanting that, 'A pension is a promise.'"

Page is one of thousands of teachers across Kentucky who have mobilized to defeat Kentucky's Senate Bill 1, joining the growing discontent among educators elsewhere in the country that has swelled after West Virginia teachers won themselves a pay raise after striking recently.

Senate Bill 1 would cut benefits for some retired teachers while making structural changes some lawmakers say are necessary to save the retirement system from collapse. It's fiercely opposed by many educators but touted by supporters as a way to reap an estimated $3.2 billion in taxpayer savings over the next 20 years.

Most of those savings would come from a temporary reduction in annual cost-of-living raises for retired teachers.

On Monday, more than a thousand teachers rallied on the steps of the state Capitol, chanting "Vote them out!" in the hopes that lawmakers deliberating inside would hear them. Many teachers say they are willing to strike, but union leaders say they hope it doesn't come to that.

"It gives me faith again that we are making a difference," said one retired teacher, Lisa Petrey-Kirk, of the rallies. "The system will work if we just do the work."

The protesters are putting the pressure on state lawmakers, especially Republican Sen. Joe Bowen of Owensboro, the pension bill's chief sponsor. In recent weeks, he said, protesters have picketed one of his former businesses and posted his personal cellphone number online so people would deluge him with calls.

"I had to change my cell number," said Bowen, speaking Monday with a reporter from a blocked number. "It's not that I don't appreciate people's (participation.) I'm not saying that at all. I want that to be very clear; it's just got to be where it is overwhelming."

Bowen and other Republican leaders in Kentucky's GOP-dominated legislature insisted Monday the pension bill is not dead, saying the state can't afford to let it to die. Kentucky's retirement systems are among the worst funded in the country. The state is at least $41 billion short of the money it needs to pay benefits over the next three decades, according to official estimates.

"The bedrock of this bill is providing a funding formula to pay down these huge liabilities, and that gets lost in all of the other rhetoric," said Bowen, who is not running for re-election. " ... That's what we need to be doing."

While Senate Bill 1 would seek about $3.2 billion in savings over two decades, most of those savings would come from temporarily reducing the annual cost-of-living raises for retired teachers to 1 percent from 1.5 percent. The raises would go back to 1.5 percent once the system is at least 90 percent funded, under the proposal. The system is 56 percent funded today.

Additionally, all newly hired teachers hired would be placed in a new retirement plan that shifts most of the risk from the state to the employees. Current teachers with less than 20 years of experience would have a new retirement formula that would reward them with more generous benefits if they work longer. And no teacher would be able to accumulate unused sick days to boost their retirement checks.

As of Monday, lawmakers did not yet have the votes to pass the bill.

And chanting teachers and other public workers rallying at the Capitol vowed they would be back every day until the bill was most certainly defeated.

For Page, who comes from a family of teachers, protesting at the legislature is a family tradition. She attended Monday's rally with her brother, John Leep III, also a teacher. They carried a photo of their teacher parents protesting at the Capitol 30 years ago over another pension bill they did not like.

"I feel like the people that came before us, they worked hard," Leep said. "We got to do the same thing for future generations of teachers and future generations of students.

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