Bevin’s rant over pension reform fiasco burns bridges with teachers and lawmakers

Published 8:51 am Tuesday, March 20, 2018


Guest columnist

The crash of the Republican pension reform bill in the face of strong opposition from teachers raises questions not just about the future of state pensions, but about the GOP’s governance of the commonwealth.

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As he often does, Gov. Matt Bevin made the worst of a bad situation, delivering a crazy radio rant that equated teachers with hoarders of strategic supplies during World War II. Privately, he raged against legislators of both parties and further isolated himself from a process that badly needs to end with passage of reforms.

The governor’s bridge-burning was obvious Wednesday when acting House Speaker David Osborne of Prospect criticized Bevin’s remarks without even listening to the recording of them on a Campbellsville station. Osborne said they showed a “lack of understanding” of teachers, and making policy “is made exponentially more difficult when people make indefensible statements.”

The teachers want the 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment that they were promised and have been contributing toward. The bill would give them 1 percent.

For at least eight Republicans in the Senate, that would be a broken promise. Some think the bill would violate the “inviolable contract” that supposedly keeps the legislature from changing pension provisions for people enrolled in a plan, and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear agrees.

“To vote for this bill would have been an act of futility,” because the courts would throw it out, Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, told me Friday. “I do believe some of Andy Beshear’s points are on target.”

Other than Buford, senators who didn’t back the bill in the secret Republican Caucus were Jared Carpenter of Berea, C.B. Embry of Morgantown, Stan Humphries of Cadiz, Alice Forgy Kerr of Lexington, Brandon Smith of Hazard and Max Wise of Campbellsville, according to several Republican senators.

Sen. Julie Raque Adams of Louisville said in the caucus that she would vote to put the bill on the floor but would not commit to vote for it. She said on Facebook that the bill’s death “is a direct result of zero tolerance by a majority of members of the Senate to put retirees and active employees at risk of benefit loss!!” She made the majority, with the eight other Republicans and the 11 Senate Democrats.

But the problem may not be so much in the Senate as in the House, all members of which are up for re-election this year. House leaders could not guarantee that the bill would pass that chamber, so that put senators at risk of casting an unpopular vote that wouldn’t result in needed reforms.

Senate President Robert Stivers acknowledged in an interview on the Senate floor that he didn’t lean on senators to support the bill, sponsored by retiring Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro.

“With the dynamics here, the dynamics there (in the House) and the dynamics on the first floor, the only person to be the poster child for people to throw darts at was going to be me,” Stivers said. “So I made the decision, because I didn’t think it could get through here, without collaboration with the House and collaboration with the governor, so I made the decision to be the poster boy, with Joe Bowen … because I didn’t want it to pass out of here and not be able to pass out of the House and not be signed by the governor. What would be the end result if I got it out of here and it dies in the House and the governor wouldn’t sign it?”

Some in the House say Stivers is making excuses, but there was clearly doubt about the bill’s fate in the House.

Asked how many votes it would have had in his chamber, House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell of Lancaster said, “We would have worked to either get the bill to a form we could pass it or get the votes on the bill.” Osborne said it was impossible to get a House vote count while the bill was still in the Senate and changes were still possible.

Close readers of this space may recall that declaration that this legislative session would be Bevin’s biggest test. Now it has also become a test for legislative leaders, and they may have to tell the governor to back off and let them find a formula that can pass.

If I had to guess, that’s what Stivers had in mind, and still does. Publicly, he has been a loyal lieutenant to Bevin, but he is a legislator at heart and has surely been irritated by the governor’s intemperate and impolitic ways. So have many other members.

“With regard to pensions, he needs to step away from the table,” Meredith said of Bevin. “The rhetoric … has caused people to turn a deaf ear to any message he might have.”

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column originally appeared in the Courier-Journal.