Lawmakers Override Beshear Vetoes Of Controversial Education Bills

Mar 30, 2021

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Future public school teachers will have less generous retirement benefits, and families in some counties will soon be able to apply for private-school scholarships funded through tax credits after Kentucky state lawmakers overrode Gov. Andy Beshear’s vetoes of two controversial education bills Monday.

Both overrides represent long-sought victories for supporters of pension reform and private schools. Others see them as major blows to public education.

Teachers hired after Jan. 1, 2022, will have a new, less-costly pension plan under House Bill 258. Bill co-sponsor Boone County Republican Rep. Ed Massey said it will save the state $3.57 billion over the next 30 years.

Massey is among the many Republicans anxious to reform the teacher pension program to address a large unfunded liability. That liability ballooned as a result of underpayments by the General Assembly during and after the Great Recession.

Republicans have supermajorities in the House and Senate, and easily overrode Beshear’s veto in each chamber without any Democratic votes, though several Jefferson County Democratic House representatives abstained.

Democrats who spoke out against the bill said it will further harm the state’s ability to recruit new teachers.

“This bill will make teachers work longer, pay more, and end up receiving fewer benefits in the long term,” Jefferson County Democratic Rep. Tina Bojanowksi said. Bojanowski is also a teacher in Jefferson County Public Schools.

The measure creates a tier for new teachers, with a “hybrid” pension plan. Instead of a traditional defined benefit pension, new teachers will have a smaller defined benefit, plus a defined contribution plan. The salary replacements are comparable to what current teachers receive once they retire, but newer teachers will have to pay in more and work longer to get them.

While current teachers can retire after 30 years of work at any age, new teachers with 30 years on the job will have to wait until they are 57 years old.

The bill was crafted over many months of discussions between a group of Republican lawmakers and representatives from several state education groups, including the Kentucky School Boards Association, the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) and the Jefferson County Teacher Association (JCTA).

The KEA remained neutral on the bill, and JCTA president Brent McKim has publicly praised many elements of the legislation. But KY 120 United, the grassroots organization that originally formed in opposition to pension reform, stood against it. The rift over the bill was a major impetus for KY 120 United’s decision to unionize.

Kentucky Gets A Tax-Credit Scholarship Program

A contentious proposal to fund private school scholarships through a tax-credit program is now a reality in Kentucky. Republicans in the House and Senate overrode Beshear’s veto of House Bill 563, which creates the program and makes it easier for students to attend public schools out of their district.

Kentucky will join at least 17 other states that have similar tax-credit scholarship programs. The bill will allow middle-income and low-income families to apply for funding to cover educational expenses, such as textbooks. Public education advocates fought a controversial element in the bill, which permits families in the state’s eight most populous counties to use the funds to cover private school tuition.

The funds will come from individuals and corporations in return for a tax credit of up to 97%. The program is capped at $25 million dollars.

Proponents of the program say it gives low-income and middle-income families the same private school options as wealthier families. But opponents say it’s the beginning of an attempt to privatize public education, and funnels $25 million in would-be tax dollars away from cash-strapped public schools.

Many Democrats also have concerns the bill does not prevent private schools from discriminating against students based on their religion, race, disability or gender identity. Unlike many other state’s tax-credit scholarship programs, Kentucky’s version does not have any provisions that say private schools cannot discriminate.

The proposal drew the ire of KY 120 United, the KEA and many other education groups.

While the override sailed through the Senate, its passage was less certain in the House, where the bill squeaked by earlier this month by a single vote: 48-47.

On Monday, supporters managed to scoop up four more Republican votes to gain the required constitutional majority of 51 votes to override Beshear’s veto. Republican Rep. Regina Huff, who had previously voted against the proposal, voted in favor of the override, along with three other Republicans who had previously abstained.

Al Gentry, the only House Democrat to vote in favor of the bill on final passage on Mar. 16, abstained from the override vote.

The bill will become law 90 days after the close of the legislative session. But Beshear suggested he or other groups may challenge the measure in court if his veto was not sustained.