Kentucky Court Strikes Pension Reform Law That Sparked Teacher Protests
By Austin Ramsey
Local school officials say the Kentucky Supreme Court's decision to strike down pension reform legislation may prove anticlimactic since the Republican-controlled General Assembly that passed it earlier this year could do so again once in session early next month.
Early reaction to the court's decision Thursday morning seemed to point toward a victory for Kentucky teachers who closed schools across the state in protest of Senate Bill 151 in the spring. Thousands filled the state Capitol, chanting and carrying signs as they sought to pressure lawmakers to reject an early proposal that would have cut their benefits. Lawmakers passed a bill anyway, and although their last-minute decision had much less of an effect on current teachers and public employees, many were outraged because lawmakers used a legislative maneuver to pass the bill so quickly it was not available for the public to read until a day after the vote.
On Thursday, the state's highest court ruled that maneuver was unconstitutional, making the law invalid. Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, who filed the lawsuit that led to Thursday's ruling, called it "a landmark win for all of our public servants." But Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called it "an unprecedented power grab by activist judges."
"This will destroy the financial condition of Kentucky," Bevin said, a claim Beshear dismissed as "fear mongering."
In Owensboro, Daviess County Public Schools Superintendent Matt Robbins spent Thursday morning analyzing the Supreme Court's decision and trying to assess what it would really mean for public employees in the long run. Ultimately, it seems, Robbins said, the court invalidated SB 151 not on the grounds of the law itself, but simply the way it was passed. Since many of the same lawmakers who rushed it through in Frankfort eight months ago will be returning shortly, there's seemingly no reason they couldn't pass it early on in the legislative session once again.
"It could be that the legislators have accepted that ruling and that they try passing it again next session," Robbins said. "They could choose to do nothing with it or there could be another reform option. There are a lot of impacts that could be considered, and, at this point, we're trying to analyze what could be the future, knowing that there was an intentional move there to pass SB 151 already."
Robbins said he maintains that some changes are needed to ensure better performance among underperforming pension assets. The governor and GOP-controlled legislature this year also approved legislation that fully funded the Kentucky Retirement System's budget request for the first time in more than a decade. Independent consultants last month said all early indications are that the decision improved the Kentucky teachers' retirement fund by at least 2 percentage points.
"With sustained funding," Robbins said, "I think that shows that the system works."
That could mean good news for future pensioners, regardless of what lawmakers decide to do this spring. Kentucky Teachers' Retirement System Executive Secretary Gary Harbin told reporters the fate of the pension law would have little effect on the system's future solvency.
Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives released a statement Thursday saying they were committed "to enact a solution" for the pension system. But they noted the legislature has been passing bills like this for decades and warned Thursday's ruling could lead to a mountain of lawsuits.
The justices considered that argument and rejected it. Justice Daniel Venters wrote any lawsuits that might have been filed "in timely fashion to challenge the enactment of now well-established laws are beyond the purview of this opinion."
"We are not persuaded from the record here that such a potential parade of horrors awaits," he wrote.
Hancock County schools Superintendent Kyle Estes said Thursday that the General Assembly could always renege on its promise to fund the pension during the next fiscal biennium, and no news on its intent heading into the next legislative session could be bad news.
"You have the fear of the unknown now," Estes said. "We've entered a time of uncertainty. We have to figure out where legislators may go from here. I'd like to have a pension longterm for all state employees, but I think we're still analyzing and watching for what comes next."
Officials are taking the time now to review the decision and what impact it will have on the future of education in Kentucky, said Owensboro Public Schools Superintendent Nick Brake.
"We are, and continue to, supporting the efforts of the General Assembly for continued sustainability and a fully-funded pension for education and state employees to honor the commitment of retirees and current employees for their service to the commonwealth," he said.
The school district's teacher association President Gina Davis said teachers in the area are very excited about the Supreme Court's decision. She said teachers intend to "maintain a watchful eye" over the General Assembly in the coming year. If similar legislation is proposed, teachers could mobilize again to protest the merits of the bill itself, which she said could break promises and hurt future hires.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
(c)2018 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.)