Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide. The following column is an updated version of a recent column published by newspapers statewide.
Governor Andy Beshear and First Lady Britainy Beshear held a poster contest as part of the inauguration festivities and invited children to submit artwork reflecting “Kentuckians working together” to accomplish “common goals we all share.”
It’s sweet and all, but raises questions about what “common goals” the governor-elect himself believes we really do embrace.
We didn’t hear much from Beshear on the campaign trail about goals “we all share” since his platform consisted primarily of “I’m not Matt Bevin” and “the teachers’ unions get whatever they demand.”
Yet there are more than 1 million Kentucky taxpayers not in the classroom or Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) whose concerns cannot be ignored if we’re truly talking “common goals we all share.”
While Bevin’s public comments and persona sliced along the wrong-sided blade of the double-edged sword that having a governor who wasn’t a typical politician like Beshear sometimes produces, he was the first governor from either party in modern history to offer a budget that fully filled the state’s public pension till by taking revenues from other government services and agencies rather than via a massive tax hike.
Despite that huge infusion of cash, which resulted in $3.3 billion being poured into the state’s pension funds during the current two-year budget – $2.3 billion of which is designated for the TRS – Bevin’s political adversaries showed no willingness to reciprocate with a reasonable discussion about reforming the way benefits are determined and awarded, even for new teachers.
Unable to criticize Bevin for fulling funding the retirement systems, Beshear during the recent gubernatorial campaign nevertheless was obligated to carry the teachers’ union banner, which he chose to do by ragging on his predecessor for reducing funding to other government programs or agencies so that the plan serving his most-committed political opponents would survive.
Yet isn’t real leadership about making the hard decisions instead of taking the easy way out through a huge tax increase or gobs of additional debt?
General Assembly Republicans should seize the opportunity to provide that leadership by pushing forward in areas where there is – or should be – widespread agreement regarding pension reform.
Stakeholders should agree, for example, that it’s unrealistic for our economy and unfair to taxpayers for teachers to enter the classroom at 22 years of age and begin collecting retirement benefits by the time they turn 50.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, life expectancy has increased by a whopping 15 years since the TRS was created in 1938.
I’m betting conscientious taxpayers would rally around a shared goal of increasing the number of years a new teacher must work in order to retire and begin receiving pension checks and full benefits.
Kentucky’s legislative leaders surely possess the political skill to build a consensus among a majority of lawmakers that we at least begin to end the nonsensical policy of shelling out more in retirement pay than teachers contribute during their careers and often for a longer period than they actually work in the classroom.
Thoughtful taxpayers understand that not addressing benefits – at least for future retirees – also is on the wrong side of that proverbial-but-indisputably-sharp double-edged sword.
Failing to do so will require additional hundreds of millions – even billions – of dollars in the future be diverted from other public priorities, including hiring and training more teachers and police officers, building and repairing roads and schools and assisting lower-income Kentuckians.
Even though the inauguration poster contest is long over, we’re still waiting to find out more about what the new governor considers “common goals” when it comes to pension reform.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and @bipps on Twitter.