Sewer-Pension Bill brings big crowds to Kentucky's Supreme Court

09/21/2018 09:46 AM

FRANKFORT— Teachers wore red to the Supreme Court of Kentucky, as the justices heard arguments regarding Kentucky’s controversial sewer bill, Senate Bill 151.

Jeni Bolander is a Special Education Teacher at Henry Clay High School in Lexington. She said she came to show how important this issue is to her.

“We want to see this through. We spent the majority of March and April fighting this. Luckily, the attorney general, KEA and the Fraternal Order of the Police have taken up our case and here we are,” Bolander said.

While pension reform wasn’t the topic of conversation in the courtroom, for the teachers who came, it’s been the topic of conversation since the bill passed.

“It’s frightening for older teachers because this is the only income that they have.
Most people don’t understand that teachers don’t get social security even if they’ve worked many years and have many social security credits. I have many, but I can’t draw on them. And so, we’re cut out. We can’t really get our husband’s social security survivor benefits either, so many of us don’t get that and it really leaves us dependent on this one source of income,” said retired teacher Claire Batt.

Batt said she retired in June because she wanted to make sure no changes were made to her pension. Bolander echoed her thoughts.

“This is it, this is all we have to rely on,” said Bolander. “I’m a teacher, my husband’s a teacher, so this is literally all we have so it was incredibly important to fight for this from day one, because this is what we signed on to in our contract and this is what we were promised. “

In his opening to the courts, Attorney General Andy Beshear said that’s why he is fighting Senate Bill 151.

Beshear told the Court, “The Kentucky Constitution creates a government by the people and for the people which means you can never shut the people out. Not from the courts not from the capitol and not from the legislative process. So I’m here on behalf of over 200 teachers, police officers, fighters, social workers, EMS, nearly every state, city, county and school worker whose rights have been violated and whose government has betrayed them. But i’m also here for all Kentuckians.”

Pensions are what brought thousands of teachers to the Capitol to protest when the bill passed, but in the court room, pensions were on the back burner. There, the issue at hand was simply, if the pension bill passed in a legal way. Steve Pitt, the General Counsel for the Governor’s Office says yes.

“In this particular bill, there just is no serious question that legislators knew what they were voting on<” said Pitt. “They had ample opportunity going back before the legislature began, knowing what was in Senate Bill 1, which became Senate Bill 151 with some provisions removed actually, so that’s a bogus argument from a factual standpoint.”

Beshear countered, “The general assembly intentionally excluded the public from this bill. Under the Constitution, an 11 page sewer bill can’t become a 290 page pension bill and pass in just 6 hours.”

While that was happening in the courtroom, Governor Bevin took to Twitter, bringing attention back to the pension, saying if it isn’t reformed, it will collapse.

House Minority Floor leader Rocky Adkins says that isn’t true. The Elliott County Democrat said, “We made some major reforms in 2013 to our pension system and we made it in a bipartisan way. The House was controlled by Democrats, the Senate by Republicans and we made some very good reforms that are working today. And the numbers show that.”

At a committee meeting 3 weeks ago, lawmakers were updated on both the teacher’s retirement system and also the retirement system for other state employees.

Speaking on the Teachers’ Retirement Systems, Beau Barnes told the committee, “We have assets around 21 billion dollars in pension and life insurance funds. That’s the most we’ve ever had. Again, very positive news there.”

However, David Eager, the Executive Director for Kentucky Retirement Systems said things aren’t as good for other state employees. Eager told the committee, “The investment group added $120 Million to the market benchmarks that we use. $120 million is great, but when you’re 27 million unfunded, it only puts a small dent in it. So, one of the messages we keep saying is we’re not going to earn our way out of this. That’s not to say we should be negligent in our duties, we’re just not going to earn it. We need funding from external sources.”

Beshear says there’s a way to do that without cutting pensions. “We’ve got to look at things like expanded gaming and other revenue that can keep our promise as a state to those that leave their families to work for our families while at the same time making the system solvent.”

Since what is being argued in the court is about procedure and not the pension, even if the Supreme Court rules against the bill, it could be reintroduced in February. Batt says that’s something she is prepared to fight. Determined, she said “I think it’s going to effect our state. It sends a message. It sends a message about how much our public officials value public employees.”

Bolander said, it could decide her future. She explained, “It will actually be one of the determining factors on whether we stay in Kentucky or not. It’s very clear that we are not super valued here by our current administration so we would like, we would love to stay, but I don’t know if that will be tenable if they changes do go through.”

She’s waiting to see how the courts rule, and also what comes in the next session.
As for the next session- Pitt indicted he doesn’t think the pension will need to be on the agenda. When asked why the Legislature doesn’t try to pass the bill again, but this time as a stand alone bill, Pitt responded, “Because there’s no need to. It was done the right way to begin with.”


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