Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover offered good counsel last week when he suggested all sides “tone down the rhetoric” as lawmakers grapple with what are certain to be painful remedies to the state’s pension crisis.
Hoover’s admonition followed a testy exchange between his Republican colleague, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, and a teacher during a Q-and-A the governor hosted on Facebook Monday night.
Bevin was asked whether changing future benefits for teachers would trigger a wave of retirements. Bevin replied that if the questioner is willing to put “your own personal best interest” ahead of that of school children, then “you probably should retire,” adding, “I know for a fact that almost all of you teachers (who) are watching this don’t think that way.”
Hoover, whose wife has taught first grade for 25 years, said he was “disappointed” by those remarks and that Bevin will “have to answer for them.”
Bevin has a history of being prickly when a question strikes him the wrong way. It is a bad trait. But other participants in Monday’s exchange also did not distinguish themselves. Bevin was called a “useless, rich politician” whose reasoning is “hot air.”
Nothing constructive can come from any of that.
If pensioners want to direct their anger where it will not be misplaced, they would do well to look at some leaders who are conveniently no longer around now that the carriage has turned into a pumpkin. That would include Greg Stumbo, longtime leader of the House Democrats who was first elected in 1980 and ousted in 2016; and the famous RINO, David Williams, who first took office in 1987 and served as president of the Senate Republicans from 2000 through 2012.
These two presided over the steady collapse of Kentucky’s public employee pension plans, which were fully funded in the 1990s. They were assisted by a succession of governors, all but one of them Democrats.
Notable among those is former two-term Gov. Steve Beshear, on whose watch the worst damage accumulated. Beshear claimed when he ran for a second term that he had “fixed” the pension crisis. But mere months later ratings firms and other objective third parties began ringing alarm bells.
Beshear remains in denial to this day. He argues in his recent book that “the sky isn’t falling” and there is no need for “dumping a lot of money into (the pension funds) that sucks up funding for other vital programs.”
Beshear, a sophisticated business lawyer, knows better. It is a fact the state owes its pension funds at least $33 billion and potentially twice that. It is a fact that Kentucky’s largest pension fund — the one covering most state workers other than teachers — is the nation’s worst by far and is running out of money. It is a fact that credit rating agency Moody’s said last month that Kentucky doesn’t have enough revenue to cover its pension obligations.
Constitutionally Kentucky cannot run a budget deficit. Constitutionally it cannot renege on its pension obligations. And unlike Washington, Kentucky cannot print money.
There’s no happy ending here. Not for pensioners. Not for taxpayers. Those who claim otherwise are simply liars. It is understandable Kentuckians are angry. They should be. But they should place blame where blame is due. And it is pointless to kill the messenger.