29 June 2022

Legislator's Proposal to Change Pension Benefits of New Teacher Hires Draws Mixed Reaction

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FRANKFORT — Legislators in a Frankfort committee heard details Wednesday about a draft bill to change the benefits of new public K-12 teachers in Kentucky, which has drawn mixed reactions from teachers groups.

Rep. C. Ed Massey, R-Hebron, first discussed the proposed legislation publicly in a committee meeting two days earlier, which calls for new hires into the Teachers' Retirement System in 2022 to have a new "hybrid" benefits plan, which offers both a guaranteed defined benefit and a defined contribution for a supplemental benefit.

While the leader of the Jefferson County Teachers Association testified with Massey at the interim committee Wednesday and spoke favorably of "common ground" provisions in his proposal, some other teachers remain highly skeptical, showing the scars of fierce battles in recent sessions over other plans to change teacher pensions.

Around a dozen teachers with KY 120 United — a staple of teacher protests in recent years — gathered in the cold rain outside the Capitol Annex where the meeting was held and visitors are not allowed to enter during the pandemic.

Jeni Bolander — a special education teacher at Henry Clay High School in Lexington and a Central Kentucky leader of KY 120 United — said the bill reminded her of a controversial proposal previously championed by former Gov. Matt Bevin, who constantly sparred with teacher groups.

"It just makes me sad and a little sick to my stomach that these people claim to be pro public education, yet they keep slapping us in the face with this stuff," Bolander said.

However, Massey said he and a working group have worked behind the scenes for months on the legislation with representatives from teachers union groups like the Kentucky Education Association and JCTA, realizing that buy-in was needed from those groups to overcome the lack of trust from pension fights in previous years.

"We feel like we need some healing," Massey said. "Over the last several years there's been animosity, there's been hurt feelings, there's been emotions that have played in. But in the midst of a pandemic, we ought to pull together as Kentuckians."

Brent McKim, the president of JCTA, said Massey has brought them in with good faith and listened to the group's concerns, calling it "the most positive and constructive way" to find common ground on a possible bill it could support.

McKim specifically cited how Massey's draft legislation includes a defined benefit pension for the new tier of teacher hires, noting they don't draw Social Security and "you had some assurance of that safety net."

As did Massey, McKim emphasized that the current draft of his bill — which has not been prefiled and is "still a work in progress" — does not change the benefits of current teachers and retirees.

The KEA, representing 44,000 teachers in the state, issued a statement Tuesday indicating it had met with Massey's work group and "advocated for future educators and argued for significant changes to this draft bill."

"In this draft bill’s current form, new teachers impacted by this proposal will have to work longer, pay more into the plan, and ultimately receive a lower guaranteed benefit than current retirees," the KEA statement said. "KEA has a long history of advocating to protect a defined benefit retirement for all public employees and will continue to do so."

Rep. McKenzie Cantrell, D-Louisville, questioned whether the new tier for future hires would hurt the financial health of the pension plan's assets that current teachers and retirees depend on, but TRS general counsel Beau Barnes told legislators it would not adversely affect it in the long term.

Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, said any effort to change teachers' pensions would have to "clean the poison out of the well" from recent history, alluding to Bevin by adding "we know we had a governor at one time that really poisoned the well."

However, Bratcher added that teachers unions "get involved in elections and that poisons the well quite a bit. I wish you guys would get out of the politics ... be down here with policy, but get out of politics, the election politics."

Rep. Ken Upchurch, R-Monticello, urged Massey to get approval from teacher groups before filing the bill to build trust, while Rep. Jim DuPlessis, R-Elizabethtown, said the legislation could "stop the spiral" of continually increasing employer contributions paid by the state.

The funding ratio of TRS — the total of assets compared with future liabilities — has improved to 58.4% after repeated years of the legislature appropriating the full actuarially required contribution to the plan. TRS representatives have said the plan will remain stable as long as that full payment is made, though the cost keeps increasing.

Rep. Angie Hatton, a member of Democratic leadership in the House from Whitesburg, met with protesting teachers outside before the meeting, saying Republicans may soon have a dominant supermajority in each chamber once the session begins Jan. 5, but should not "take their large numbers that they won in the election to mean it's a mandate for all of their policies."

"I don't think that people intended to be voting for pension reform," Hatton said. "I think a lot of voters — especially teachers who helped get Andy Beshear elected — have thought that battle was behind us. And they have gotten a lot of assurances and promises from the Republican representatives that they won't do things that are going to harm their pension."

Bolander said legislators have thankfully funded teachers' pensions fully in recent years and hopes they continue to, "but there's no need to throw new teacher hires under the bus."

"We will not be able to recruit the best and brightest teachers in Kentucky if we make them work longer for less benefits and wages, because they're gonna have to pay more in for the retirement."

Responding to Bratcher, Bolander said that "teachers will get out of politics when they get out of our classrooms. What they do here in Frankfort impacts everything we do in our classroom. ... We can't be constantly worried about our pensions."

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