JCPS collective-bargaining agreement faces warranted scrutiny

CEI Trey KovacsKentucky’s Department of Education is trying to get a handle on problems with labor union contracts negotiated by the state’s largest school district.

Last month, the agency sent out a request for contractors to review the collective bargaining negotiations and agreements between Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) and its union. This is part of a sweeping audit of the school system to find out “whether the contracts were negotiated in good faith, followed best practices and focused only on areas that were permissive subjects of bargaining, among other things,” as reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The planned review has ignited a turf war of sorts. The school board chairman is campaigning for the state Attorney General, Andy Beshear, to conduct the review, instead. But regardless of who does the review, there’s at least one big problem in need of public scrutiny: so-called “association leave.” It may sound benign, but it amounts to a taxpayer-funded subsidy to the Jefferson County Teachers Association.

Association leave grants teachers paid time off from the classroom to perform union business unrelated to their job duties. Instead of educating students, teachers receive a significant amount of paid leave to perform union activities on the taxpayer dime. No one knows how much is money is wasted on association time. Neither the school district nor the union publicize the cost or amount of association leave they receive.

In terms of number of days wasted, the union is supposed to get 275 full days of association leave annually. Apparently, the union has been known to blow past that limit, according to a 2010 analysis of Kentucky District collective bargaining agreements conducted by the Legislative Research Commission Office of Education Accountability. The “OEA discovered that the number of days permitted by JCPS Human Resources staff far exceeded the number of days allowed in the contract.”

Another question is: what exactly are public employees doing while they’re on association leave? The union’s contract states association leave is “for attendance at regional, state or national meetings for the conduct of necessary Association business.” Already, some evidence suggests those limitations don’t garner much respect.

My organization, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, sent public records requests to the school district asking for the activity performed by JCTA members on association leave during fiscal year 2013. Here are some of the activities union members performed instead of serving the students of Jefferson County: attended JCTA board meetings, as well as organizing committee meetings; union staff interviews; National Education Association conferences; and board meetings of Jobs with Justice (a union front group that conducts campaigns against employers).

Clearly, association leave isn’t serving any public purpose or helping to educate children. Tax dollars need to go to the classroom, a sentiment expressed by Andrew Bailey, a JCPS high school teacher and board member during contract negotiations in 2014. Meanwhile, Bailey himself had spent days away from the classroom to perform union activity, according to CEI’s public records request.

Unfortunately, the scope of the problem is bigger than one school district. Numerous city governments and schools districts, like the City of Louisville, needlessly pay public employees to perform union business unrelated to their public duties while paid by the taxpayer.

It’s a good start that the Department of Education is scrutinizing one school district’s union contracts, but now they need to take action to root out the waste in it. Kentucky taxpayers deserve an explanation for how giving away their tax dollars to unions count as a proper use of their money.

Guest columnist Trey Kovacs is a labor policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

BIPPS op-ed in Herald-Leader: Sunshine laws ‘showing their age’

COG2Kentuckians are justifiably proud of their nationally recognized open meetings and records laws, popularly referred to as sunshine laws.

Since the mid-1970s, these laws have enabled the public to hold their officials and agencies accountable through meetings and records access. The policies that support the laws have, as Kentucky’s Supreme Court once noted, “revealed whether public servants are indeed serving the public” and provided “impetus for agencies steadfastly to pursue the public good.”

They are, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis presciently observed, “the best of disinfectants.”

But Kentucky’s sunshine laws, which have not been substantially amended in 23 years, are showing their age.

Successive legal challenges, coupled with a revolution in the dynamics of communication, have exposed deficiencies in the laws that warrant legislative action.

In a newly released report, “Shining the Light on Kentucky’s Sunshine Laws,” the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government identifies the deficiencies which impede effective implementation and enforcement, focusing on the need for clarification, reconciliation and modernization of the current laws.
Read the entire op-ed here. 

Thursday night in Bowling Green: Will major changes promised regarding Kentucky’s education standards really happen?

Bluegrass Institute Staff Education Analyst Richard Innes will discuss the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards that are currently in use in Kentucky at a special meeting of the Southern Kentucky Tea Party on Thursday @ 6:30 pm (central) @ the Holiday Inn Express, 165 Three Springs Road in Bowling Green.

Innes will provide insight into whether these standards will really change after passage of new legislation that says the intent of the Kentucky Legislature is to repeal those standards.

The event is free and open to the public.

Please contact Bluegrass Institute president and CEO Jim Waters @ jwaters@freedomkentucky.com or (859) 444-5630.

Bluegrass Institute News Release – Hear, hear: Congressional conservatives must oppose FDA’s unhealthy proposal

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For Immediate Release:  Tuesday, June 6, 2017                                                    

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Kentuckians know to be nervous when it comes to large and stealth power grabs by the federal government and its out-of-control regulatory regime, particularly that of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Such is the case with the Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2016 co-sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the House version of which likely will be considered in Washington this week.

Fortunately, U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green, who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will hear the bill, must push back against yet another federal takeover of an important health-care sector: hearing loss.

The FDA seeks the power to slap new regulations on over-the-counter hearing aids and pre-empt state hearing-aid laws, leaving Kentucky powerless to create hearing policies that benefit its own citizens and instead turning over more of our healthcare decisions to the federal government.

Supporters of the measure incorrectly claim the bill will increase consumer access to hearing aids, ignoring the fact that over-the-counter devices known as personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) already are available for purchase simply by logging on to Amazon or going to your local Best Buy – all without the federal government’s meddling.

“This isn’t the first exposure Kentuckians have had to unhealthy FDA policy,” said Jim Waters, president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s first and only free-market think tank. “Amish farmer Sam Girod right now sits in a Lexington jail cell facing the possibility of a 48-year prison sentence, courtesy of FDA thugs who bullied their way to a felony conviction against the father of 12 simply for producing skin salves made from chickweed and bloodroot, which the government agency accused him of using to turn wild and edible weeds into a potent drug.”

“The FDA has become deaf to its mission of informing and protecting citizens and increasingly opposes our freedoms,” Waters added. “This ill-advised legislation seeks to regulate PSAPs as hearing aids, eliminating the important role doctors play in diagnosing and treating hearing loss along with driving up the costs of current over-the-counter products.”

PSAPs are used for recreational purposes like hunting or birdwatching. They simply amplify noise.

Hearing aids, on the other hand, which are available after a screening, diagnosis and prescription from an audiologist, are highly customized to treat a patient’s unique and complex hearing-loss situation.

Not only will this bill’s regulations fail to improve health outcomes, they likely will have unintended consequences, including regulating PSPAPs used for hunting – all of which raises unnecessary questions about whether the FDA will be open to the availability of hunting aids, a fact which resulted in the Gun Owners of America coming out in opposition to this bill last week.

When Guthrie voted along with his fellow conservatives to repeal the Obamacare monstrosity, the congressman described his vote this way: “We have a historic opportunity to reverse Obamacare’s dangerous course and give power back to the states, patients, and doctors.”

Hear, hear.

It’s time yet again for Guthrie and others who believe in the principles of limited government and individual liberty to rise to the occasion and provide the backstop to this foolhardy regulatory legislation.

For more information or comment, please contact Jim Waters at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com, 859.444.5630 ext. 102 (office) or 270.320.4376 (cell).

 

 

 

 

News Release: Bluegrass Institute report stresses the need to modernize Kentucky’s sunshine laws

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For Immediate Release: Monday, June 5, 2017                                                                                         

COG LOGO(FRANKFORT, Ky.) – A report released today by the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s first and only free-market think tank, urges policymakers to revise and update the commonwealth’s open meetings and open records laws considering “rapid changes in the dynamics of communication and information transmission” and an increasing number of legal challenges.

“Shining the Light on Kentucky’s Sunshine Laws” is written by Amye Bensenhaver, who retired in 2016 after a 25-year career in the commonwealth’s Office of Attorney General in which she authored around 2,000 legal opinions related to the open meetings and open records laws and recently agreed to join the Bluegrass Institute team as the director of its Center for Open Government.

An online copy of the full report, including its executive summary, is available here.

Bensenhaver was a recipient of a 2017 Bluegrass Institute Liberty Award.

“We are committed to preserving what is best in the open meetings and open records law while at the same time eliminating their ambiguities, conflicts and outdated elements,” Bensenhaver said. “We offer recommendations that will ease the burden on public agencies while also reducing the likelihood of legal challenges, preserving valuable administrative and judicial resources and, most importantly, promoting the goal of open, transparent and accountable government at all levels and in all places across the commonwealth.”

Along with highlighting conflicts between open meetings and open records exemptions, which frequently cause confusion and inconsistencies related to government bodies meeting in closed session, the report also calls for more meaningful penalties as a deterrence for not complying with these laws.

“This report offers thoughtful recommendations for updating the commonwealth’s sunshine laws to reflect rapid advances in communication technology while carefully protecting against diluting the entrenched principles of transparency and accountability,” Bluegrass Institute President and CEO Jim Waters said. “We consider events in the evolution of the open records and meetings laws and make the case for closing loopholes exploited by agencies who receive a significant amount of taxpayer funding while firmly defending citizens’ access to their government’s records.

Please contact the Bluegrass Institute at 859.444.5630 or info@freedomkentucky.com to obtain a hard copy of the report.  

For more information or comment, please contact Amye Bensenhaver at abensenhaver@freedomkentucky.com or 502.330.1816 (cell), or Jim Waters at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com, 859.444.5630 ext. 102 (office) or 270.320.4376 (cell).

 

More from #kyga17: Pension transparency bills book-ended busy session

Back-pledge-iconto-back pension transparency bills – Senate Bills 2 and 3 – provided strong bookends for a busy 2017 session of the Kentucky General Assembly.

Along with passage during the session’s historic first week of Sen. Chris McDaniel’s SB 3, which makes legislators’ pension benefits subject to open-records requests – an issue pushed by the Bluegrass Institute’s Legislative Pension Transparency Pledge during last year’s election – Sen. Joe Bowen’s SB 2 reorganizes the Kentucky Retirement Systems Board and imposes stricter guidelines for financial disclosures and requires greater investment experience to serve on the retirement systems’ boards.

The bill also requires Senate confirmation for board appointments to the commonwealth’s three retirement systems – the Kentucky Retirement System (KRS), Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System (KTRS) and the Judicial Retirement System (which includes legislators’ pensions) – as well mandating uniform methods of reporting and disclosing investment fees and requiring the chair or vice chair of the House budget committee to join the Public Pension Oversight Board.

Bowen indicated in comments to reporters that an outgrowth of SB 2 will be rejecting “this notion that a fiscal impact of any board action is undefinable” while emphasizing “there are fiscal impacts on every decision made.”

The fact that both Senate Bills 2 and 3 received overwhelming support in the Kentucky House of Representative by votes of 95-1 and 99-0, respectively, indicates that lawmakers and their constituents have an appetite to know – and do – more about what’s happening with taxpayer dollars that previously disappeared into the deep dark hole of the state’s secretive and costly public-pension system.

News Release: Government transparency and accountability the theme of the Bluegrass Institute’s 2017 Liberty Awards event @ Keeneland

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For Immediate Release: Tuesday, May 30, 2017

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Making government more transparent, accountable and accessible to citizens was the theme of the Bluegrass Institute’s 2017 Legislative Breakfast and Liberty Awards event at the Keeneland Racecourse.

The late Lowell Reese was honored posthumously with a Liberty Award presented to his widow, Carol, and praised by Laura Cullen Glasscock, Reese’s successor as publisher of The Kentucky Gazette.

Noting his considerable achievements as a political advisor and strategist, including having been the state director for Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign and the architect of Rep. Hal Rogers’ successful campaign for Congress in 1980, Glasscock also lauded Reese’s work as a “meticulous reporter and researcher,” calling him “one who listened to what other people told him with healthy skepticism, but also with fairness.”

Reese’s greatest impact to Kentucky’s public policy arguably was his contribution to the ideas laying the groundwork for reforming the commonwealth’s retirement systems,

“Years before almost anyone started paying attention, Lowell sounded an alarm on the state’s pension crisis,” Glasscock said.

Much of his research and recommendations for pension reform, including bringing transparency to the legislative retirement system and exposing what he named “The Greed Bill” – House Bill 299 passed in 2005, which allowed lawmakers to calculate the size of their legislative retirement checks based on their full-time salaries as other government positions rather than their earnings as legislators – were published in “Future Shock,” a Bluegrass Institute report released in 2012.

Reese also wrote extensively about the issue on his Kentucky Roll Call site and in The Kentucky Gazette.

“Liberty awards are given to those who have made a significant difference in pushing Kentucky in the right direction,” Bluegrass Institute president and CEO Jim Waters said. “Few, if any, have done more than Lowell Reese to advance sound policy and principled leadership in our state.”

Other 2017 Liberty Award winners include Sen. Christian McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, for his tireless effort in advancing legislation to bring greater transparency and accountability to the commonwealth’s public pension system, and Amye Bensenhaver, who spent 25 years as an assistant attorney general in Frankfort, where she wrote around 2,000 legal opinions related to the state’s open records and open meetings laws.

In 2015, Bensenhaver, who recently was named director of the Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government, helped the institute makes its case that a Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) committee formed to hire a search firm for a new commissioner operated improperly.

Although the board denied the complaint, Bensenhaver helped guide the institute through the appeals process, which ultimately resulted in a favorable ruling by then-Attorney General Jack Conway and a much greater emphasis regarding open meetings and open records by the KBE, including a briefing for new board members on their first day in office regarding their responsibilities toward these transparency policies.

“With its theme of open, transparent and accountable government, this edition of the Liberty Awards would be incomplete without recognizing a consummate professional who – because of her great competence and commitment to the law – has helped her fellow Kentuckians gain access to their government when they were denied,” Waters said in announcing Bensenhaver’s award.

Thanks to McDaniel’s leadership and persistence, Senate Bill 3, which makes legislators’ pension benefits subject to open-records requests, was one of seven bills passed with a near-unanimous vote during this year’s historic opening week of the 2017 session of the Kentucky General Assembly.

“Sen. McDaniel has become one of the most productive, yet respected, state senators,” Waters said. “It would have been much easier for him to go to Frankfort, play it safe and have a career in state government. Instead, he has come and he has pushed to bring transparency to the spending of taxpayer dollars, including those spent on pension benefits for legislators.”

McDaniel, who’s pushed for the legislative transparency bill for several years, said the difficult decisions facing the commonwealth regarding the state’s pension system must be done with all taxpayers and citizens in mind.

“You will hear a lot about the inviolable contract with state workers and retirees,” he said. “We not only have an inviolable contract with them, but there are 4.2 million other Kentuckians and taxpayers that we have a contract with,” he said.

Bensenhaver laid out her vision for the new Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government, including the need to persuade lawmakers regarding the need for a “substantial revision” of the commonwealth’s open meetings and open records laws.

“These revisions must be driven by a recognition of the changes in the dynamics of communication and informed by the clearly expressed statements of legislative policy favoring public access,” she said.

Waters praised Bensenhaver’s work, saying it will help advance the Bluegrass Institute’s influence not just our commonwealth but the entire nation.

“Not only is Kentucky on its way to becoming one of the fastest-growing and most innovate states in America, but we also want it to be known as a state with the highest regard for open meetings and open records laws,” he said.

To reach Bluegrass Institute Pension Reform Team members for comment, contact Bluegrass Institute president Jim Waters at  jwaters@freedomkentucky.com, 859.444.5630 (office) or 270.320.4376 (cell).

Quote of the day: Tax hikes? Not likely

“We’re not for tax increases.” –Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown

Bluegrass Beacon: ‘Sorry’ no longer sufficient

BluegrassBeaconLogo“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission,” said the late Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who was born in New York City in 1906, joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, worked in computer programming following the war, resumed active service at the age of 60 and became the nation’s oldest serving naval officer before retiring in 1986.

Put another way, Hopper’s saying encourages: “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”

Most of us would find such an approach acceptable in the field of computer programming.

Had Hopper been as lethargic as most in that field during her day, she never would have led a team which created the world’s first computer programming language compiler.

However, it’s never “a good idea” to break the law, including laws designed to protect not only the rights but practical abilities of citizens to hold government agencies and officials accountable – even if the unlawful activity is accompanied by offenders’ contrition after the fact.

The Corbin Public Library Board was contrite following an attorney general’s ruling that the board violated the Kentucky Open Meetings Act by the way it conducted several of its meetings in 2015 and 2016.

It should have been, considering it failed to give notice of special board and committee meetings, chronicle and approve minutes of its meetings or observe the requirements for entering closed sessions all while conducting meetings in a locked building.

Yes, locked.

Oftentimes, such violations occur because boards or agencies know their decisions will be unpopular with the taxpaying public.

Library boards in some parts of the commonwealth have acted brashly in recent years, especially when it comes to squeezing taxpayers to fund elaborate, unneeded and expensive building projects.

But the Open Meetings Act – the law since 1974 – requires that if you’re going to attempt to raid taxpayers’ wallets, you can’t do it behind pulled blinds and locked doors.

What makes the Corbin library board’s remorse somewhat hollow is that members knew – or at least had numerous opportunities to get training in – the law yet chose to ignore it and those chances, adding weight to the assertion of transparency experts that Kentucky’s sunshine laws are light on penalties.

Even though attorneys general rulings in cases involving the open meetings and open records acts – the latter established in 1976 – carry the force of law, they’re missing a matching set of teeth.

Agencies can ignore it, say “sorry” when confronted with violations and suffer no real penalties, unless the whole matter ends up in a courtroom.

This does little to force government entities to seriously consider the law when deciding where, how and when to meet and what public business to consider, and doesn’t deter future shenanigans.

Some agencies, when called on their violations, don’t even bother with “sorry.”

When the Bluegrass Institute in 2015 prevailed in a legal challenge to the Kentucky Board of Education involving a committee tasked with finding an executive headhunting agency to lead the search for a new commissioner that wrongly conducted its meetings by telephone, not only were there no penalties involved, board members at that time attempted to downplay the attorney general’s ruling and the wrongness of their own actions.

They stubbornly refused to even consider implementing the institute’s proposed, reasonable and cost-free remedy: open meetings training for its members by a representative of the attorney general’s office.

Still, progress is being made.

Instructions were given to board members recently appointed to the KBE board on their first day in office regarding their responsibilities involving open meetings and records.

Once citizens become more aware of the importance of and engaged in defending, enforcing and strengthening the sunshine laws, “sorry” will no longer be sufficient.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.

Bluegrass Beacon: Giving unaffordable pension benefits an economically fatal practice

BluegrassBeaconLogoLike Bernie Sanders refuses to acknowledge socialism’s devastating impact on previously prosperous Venezuela, supporters of Kentucky’s pension status quo – who seem largely illiterate about how defined-benefit systems work – refuse to concede that inadequate funding is not the primary cause of the commonwealth’s pension woes.

If it was, then why is the County Employees’ Retirement System (CERS) only around 60-percent funded despite making 100 percent of its actuarially required contributions through the years?

It’s because CERS hasn’t escaped suffering the same malady – awarding and enhancing benefits in ways neither taxpayers can afford nor the system was designed to support – now infecting all state retirement plans, and which cannot be ignored by any policymaker wanting to claim the mantle of serious pension reform.

CERS through the years not only raised the benefit factor – which, along with assumed rates of return on investments and contributions of employees and their government-employer agencies, determine the amount beneficiaries receive when they retire – but also has applied those raises to previous years.

While such benefit increases make recipients feel good about voting for the good-ole-boy politician who brought home that bacon, it’s a fatal tactic if Kentucky wants to continue providing its employees with defined-benefit plans.

For example, a plan member who entered the CERS on July 1, 1958, when it was established by the legislature, was awarded an initial benefit factor of 1.25 percent.

Far from being an arbitrary figure, that benefit factor, which is the percentage of final average salary beneficiaries will receive for that year of service, was based on certain conservative assumptions regarding what the system’s investments would earn and the employees and employers would contribute.

Flash forward to 1990, when the benefit factor for CERS members, which had risen through the years, reached 2.2 percent.

Such a benefit factor in and of itself would not have been a problem if it had been applied just for that year when investment returns had risen and the plan could cover it.

However, system bureaucrats applied that benefit retroactively, so that a beneficiary who entered the plan in 1958 and retired in 1990 was awarded a pension amount based on a 2.2 percent benefit factor for all those years, even though the amount received by beneficiaries is horizontal and not vertical in a defined-benefit plan.

Huge unfunded pension liabilities, anyone?

If, in fact, the state’s retirement systems would have followed the rules by awarding benefits for each year based on the assumptions and contributions for that year and not forced higher benefits retroactively, the commonwealth would have a surplus rather than a $40 billion (at least) unfunded liability.

I have no doubt about the happiness experienced by the beneficiary who retired in 1990 with a pension check that was 42-percent higher than the one the system was designed and funded to support.

But I seriously doubt taxpayers, who carry most of the risk but have the least say of all stakeholders, enjoy anywhere near the same level of bliss in knowing that the pension check received by that retiree is nearly 73 percent of his final average salary even though the system was designed and funded to support a 51-percent benefit.

While higher-than-expected returns on investments masked for years such incompetency or shenanigans – you pick – the consequences are catching up with CERS and the other public pension plans.

Separating CERS from the Kentucky Retirement Systems (KRS) – about which there has been much buzz – is functionally the right move. But doing so will not come close to abating our pension crisis.

In fact, before being allowed to leave the KRS, policymakers must demand that CERS also end this practice of retroactively awarding enhanced benefits.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.