BIPPS’ pension testimony: It’s the benefit structure that’s the problem

BIPRT TESTIFIES @ MARCH PPOB MEETINGThe Bluegrass Institute Pension Reform Team offered its presentation “Sound Solutions for Kentucky’s Pension Crisis” at a recent meeting of the state’s Public Pension Oversight Board.

Dr.  William Smith told board members that addressing Kentucky’s public-retirement crisis is key to understanding and confronting the structural imbalance of the benefits system.


Bluegrass Institute Board member Aaron Ammerman, an investment adviser in Lexington, testified that while addressing pension benefits is a difficult topic fraught with emotion, it must be done in order to pursue true reform “with real teeth to it.”

He also told board members that while the Bluegrass Institute is not opposed to keeping a defined benefit system for state retirees, the rules for maintaining a properly funded pension system have not been followed in Kentucky like they have in other states.

Ammerman focused on a couple of the most-important rules.


The Bluegrass Pension Reform Team will make a presentation on Kentucky’s trouble pension system this Saturday, April 22, at the monthly meeting of Take Back Kentucky. The meeting begins at 1 pm at the Family Buffet restaurant, 121 Towne Drive, in Elizabethtown 42701 (next to the Kroger store near Dixie Highway).


News Release: Confronting pension crisis calls for reforming benefits structure

For Immediate Release: Monday, March 27, 2017  BIPPS LOGO

(FRANKFORT, Ky) – While most of the recent discussion regarding public-pension reform has focused on funding levels and investment returns, Bluegrass Institute Pension Reform Team (BIPRT) member Aaron Ammerman told the state’s Public Pension Oversight Board today that the retirement systems’ benefit structure is “the most significant contributing factor to our crises today.”

The commonwealth faces more than $38 billion in pension debt with the state employee nonhazardous fund – the Kentucky Retirement System’s largest plan – sliding toward insolvency with a current funding level of only 16 percent.

“Retroactive benefit enhancements always wreak havoc on a defined benefit plan, and that is what happened in Kentucky,” Ammerman, a financial advisor and member of the Bluegrass Institute Board of Directors, said in prepared comments.

The team’s testimony focused on two practices that have contributed significantly to Kentucky’s pension hole becoming deeper over time: the practice of awarding benefits retroactively and a failure by legislators to obtain a cost analysis prior to enhancing benefits.

Such practices reflect repeated violations of the Kentucky Constitution and state statute.

“The Bluegrass Institute has reviewed dozens of benefit enhancements granted to employees back to the 1980s and found only one such cost analysis,” Ammerman said. “Legislators were enhancing benefits without even the slightest idea about the increased costs that would be incurred to the system and, therefore, the taxpayers of Kentucky.”

He offered an example of a currently employed 20-year state employee who has faithfully contributed his required share into the system for a promised future benefit and which, as long as the state fulfills its funding obligation and assumed investment returns are met, this employee’s pension will be fully funded in retirement.

“If, however, this employee’s promised benefits were increased just before retirement, all of the contributions and calculations over the previous 20 years would be inadequate to fund that higher retirement benefit,” Ammerman said.

BIPRT member Dr. William Smith, a Madisonville dermatologist who served on Gov. Matt Bevin’s pension reform transition team, called on lawmakers to practice “actuarial integrity” when making future decisions regarding benefits by ensuring that “the benefits defined by the legislature and actuarially prefunded with normal cost payroll contributions are the same benefits received by plan members upon retirement.”

Along with offering specific recommendations for both the Kentucky Retirement Systems and the Teachers’ Retirement System, Smith offered four proposals for all systems:

  • Enact a constitutional amendment prohibiting retroactive benefit enhancements.
  • Provide complete transparency for all benefits received by every retiree and how these benefits were determined.
  • Ensure the governance and board representation of each plan reflects the risk assumed by each stakeholder, noting that “taxpayers need to properly and proportionately be represented in each plan.”
  • If legitimate reform efforts prove unsuccessful, impose a “hard freeze” on current benefits and establish a new system.

To reach Bluegrass Institute Pension Reform Team members for comment, contact Bluegrass Institute president Jim Waters @ 270.320.4376.

News Release – Pension transparency: Elected officials who kept their word

For Immediate Release: Friday, January 13, 2017

Contact: Jim Waters @ 859.444-5630 (office) 270.320.4376 (cell) 

(FRANKFORT, Ky.) — Less than a week into this year’s legislative session, Kentucky’s representatives delivered an enormous win for open and transparent government. Backed by the support of an overwhelming bipartisan coalition, the state House of Representatives voted 95-1 to pass the Legislative Pension Transparency Bill (Senate Bill 3).

The bill gives voters access to details about their elected representatives’ pension plans, adding a crucial layer of accountability to a taxpayer-funded public-pension system taken advantage of in the past.

Spearheading the effort to pass this legislation was Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, the bill’s primary sponsor and public accountability advocate. For more than five years, Sen. McDaniel has worked tirelessly to make this reform a reality, despite being stymied year after year by obstructionists in the House.

“I am thankful that legislative pension transparency is, after more than five years of fighting, a reality in Kentucky,” concluded Sen. McDaniel. “The public deserves to know the potential financial motivations of those they elect and this law ensures that they will have that knowledge.”

This important reform would not have been possible without the support of the public servants who followed through on their commitments to making their own pension benefits open and accessible to those they serve.

“Thank you to all the signers of our Legislative Pension System Transparency Pledge from both sides of the political aisle who kept their word by voting for SB 3,” added Bluegrass Institute President Jim Waters. “Their commitment to transparency is an important step toward the kind of accountability needed to address a public-pension crisis which threatens Kentucky’s entire economy.”

Senate pledge signers who voted for SB 3:

Danny Carroll Stephen Meredith C.B. Embry, Jr
Joe Bowen David P. Givens Jimmy Higdon
Damon Thayer Larry West Tom Buford
Chris McDaniel Ernie Harris Mike Wilson


House pledge signers who voted for SB 3:

Steven Rudy Alan Gentry Richard Heath
Ken Fleming James Tipton Lynn Bechler
Daniel Elliott Kenny Imes Kim King
Walker Thomas Joseph M. Fischer Dean Schamore
David Osborne Sal Santoro Robert “Robby” Mills
Brian Linder D. J. Johnson Phillip Pratt
Melinda Gibbons Prunty Adam Koenig Tim Moore
Michael Meredith Donna Mayfield Jody Richards
Bart Rowland Mark Hart Steve Riley
C. Wesley Morgan William Reed Robert J. Benvenuti III
Jim DuPlessis Tim Couch Russell Webber
Gary “Toby” Herald Phil Moffett John C. Blanton
Jason Nemes Jerry T. Miller Larry D. Brown
William Wells Danny R. Bentley Stan Lee
Kevin D. Bratcher Diane St. Onge

For more information, please contact Jim Waters at, 859.444.5630 (office) or 270.320.4376 (cell).

Pension python squeezing Kentucky’s economy

futureshocksquareReporter John Cheves covers the state’s retirement systems’ crisis in Tuesday’s Lexington Herald-Leader, citing inadequate funding, weak investment returns and “unrealistic assumptions” regarding public employees and their benefits as the primary contributing factors to Kentucky’s public pension plight.

Two of this stool’s three legs have received a lion’s share of the attention by policymakers.

It is, after all, more politically palatable to talk incessantly about funding and weak investment returns — as most bureaucrats who run these systems and their political pals in the Legislature do — than to confront the primary contributor to the water seeping out of Kentucky’s pension bathtub: costly and unsustainable benefits.

Dr. William Smith, a member of the Bluegrass Institute Pension Reform Team, explains that retroactive benefit enhancements are the primary culprit.

“The funding deficits for KRS (Kentucky Retirement Systems) and KTRS (Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System) were created by retroactively enhancing benefits previously endowed with an actuarial reserve,” Smith said. “This creates a disparity between the value of reserves and the value of future benefit obligations, converting a relatively innocuous actuarial reserve system into a quasi-pay-as-you-go Ponzi scheme. In other words, benefits are actuarially funded when they are earned, and then arbitrarily enhanced at a later date.”

For example, a County Employees Retirement System (CERS) non-hazardous member hired in 1958 — when the “benefit factor” was 1.25 percent — who retired in 1991 when the benefit factor had increased almost a full percentage point to 2.2 percent, gets an unearned windfall of thousands of dollars during his lifetime in the form of retirement checks that apply the 2.2 percent benefit factor to every year of service — going all the way back to 1958.

By awarding this retiree benefits at the higher level — not just for the years properly funded with “normal cost” payroll contributions, but for every year of service — we have created a pension python that’s squeezing Kentucky’s entire economy using “unrealistic assumptions.”

“If you think of it as a bathtub, the water is going down,” KRS interim executive director David Eager told the Public Pension Oversight Board during its monthly meeting on Monday.

“We are where we are, and we’re going to work to get our way out of it,” Eager said.

However, Kentucky will not “work our way out of it” unless the legislature deals with the politically popular — but illegal and unconstitutional — retroactive benefit enhancements.

Click here for more on the Bluegrass Institute’s pension reform research and ideas.

Bluegrass Beacon: Now is not the time for timidity

BluegrassBeaconLogoHardworking Americans labeled “deplorables” by Hillary Clinton, Donald J. Trump’s corrupt and elitist opponent, stormed the Establishment’s Bastille on Tuesday and handed the populist real-estate mogul the keys to the White House in an improbable finish to an election that strained our political system, causing it to creak and groan but ultimately hold.

Voters both in Kentucky and nationally also took a reprieve from divided government, which, when conducted in good faith, serves taxpayers well by placing imbedded checks and balances against increasing government’s size and cost.

However, divided government as defined and demonstrated by Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, who was defeated in his re-election bid in the 95th District, means using political power to obstruct any kind of meaningful legislative process and debate – much less movement – on vital economic, education and transparency reforms.

Stumbo, who first came to the legislature in 1980 and was Kentucky Attorney General from 2003 to 2007, gives new meaning to the term “self-serving politician.”

In terms of policy obstruction, it may indeed be “good riddance” as Gov. Matt Bevin wished the double-dipping Prestonsburg Democrat during a victory lap filled with radio interviews the day after the election.

However, taxpayers will be forced to send Stumbo hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars in pension payments for years to come.

The longtime eastern Kentucky representative will ride off into retirement sunset with an estimated $1.24 million pension bonus –not including cost-of-living increases – as the result of House Bill 299 in 2005, which spikes lawmakers’ pensions by allowing the three highest years of salary in any government position to determine the size of legislative retirement checks.

Instead of Stumbo’s legislative retirement being based on his “high three” salary while occupying a General Assembly seat, for which he was compensated around $40,000 annually, it will be determined using his nearly six-figure salary as attorney general.

Also, the fact that he “maxed out” his legislative pension at 24 years and two months “made him eligible to draw 100 percent of his $98,824 AG salary” and “triggered the 1998 law that automatically enrolled him in the Kentucky Employees’ Retirement System to begin a second legislative pension,” the late Lowell Reese wrote in a Bluegrass Institute report entitled Future Shock: Kentucky Politicians’ Opulent Pensions Have Become a Modern-Day Gold Rush.

Still, Stumbo’s exit from Frankfort and the Republicans’ takeover of the South’s only remaining state House of Representatives under Democratic control, is a positively consequential political victory.

It sets up the very real possibility that the Kentucky General Assembly will become the nation’s most conservative state legislature.

Yet while Republicans won this battle, they must not be timid and halting, as some establishment-type politicos started advising even before the lights were turned off at the polls on Tuesday.

Instead, this new legislature must immediately push forward and take new ground.

There certainly was nothing timid about either Trump’s election or Kentucky voters’ decision to give Republicans a historic 17-seat swing in the state House, which amounts not just to a majority – which would have pleased GOP leaders heading into Tuesday’s election – but to a 64-36 supermajority.

Evidence eludes me of any similar previous developments in favor of Republicans in Kentucky General Assembly history.

If Washington can be considering a special session of Congress to deal with the despised Obamacare fiasco, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t expect to see bills filed in Frankfort posthaste to bring long-awaited increased transparency, right-to-work, school choice and pension, tax, regulatory and Medicaid reforms to the Bluegrass State.

What should not elude the new House majority is that Trump’s election shows a growing impatience among voters, who don’t at all seem timid about making wholesale changes when their interests aren’t acted upon prudently and promptly.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute; Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at

Bluegrass Beacon: Open government always in vogue

BluegrassBeaconLogoMy retired neighbor — a registered Democrat who dons his own unique version of political agnosticism — reminds me daily how eager he is for the current political warfare to cease.

He’s an equal opportunity critic of both political parties who often shares his (unsolicited) conviction that the level of discontent within the current political environment is such that not even a campaign by “Jesus Christ himself” could satisfy most partisans.

“They would be trying to find some dirt even on him,” he bemoans.

Still, this election season hasn’t been entirely about dirt-digging, at least not here in Kentucky.

For instance, we’ve seen a display of solid bipartisan support for making government less secretive and more accessible to its citizens.

Amongst the partisan rancor associated with Kentucky Republicans wrestling to take control of the state House of Representatives for the first time since 1920 is increased bipartisan momentum for revealing the retirement benefits of all current and former lawmakers.

Both Democratic and Republican candidates in 10 House districts have signed the 67-word Bluegrass Institute Legislative Pension Transparency Pledge that champions shining the bright disinfecting light of transparency on benefits received by lawmakers resulting from both their part-time work in the General Assembly as well as appointments to gravy-train jobs in state government allowing them to pad their political pensions.

Incumbents and candidates who sign the pledge agree to be held accountable for their future statements, votes and commitments related to transparency during the remainder of their political careers.

Granted, some incumbents signed the pledge only after being confronted by challengers for their long-held seats.

“I proudly signed this pledge IMMEDIATELY – unlike my opponent who waited until just days before our debate to suddenly be ‘for transparency,’” tweeted Bowling Green City Commissioner Melinda Hill, who’s challenging Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, for his 20th District seat.

Still, the fact that Richards, who’s held the seat since Jimmy Carter was president, ultimately signed the pledge and voted as a member of the House State Government Committee during this year’s legislative session to make politicians’ retirement information transparent shows he understands: it’s a losing proposition to oppose making information about legislative pensions available to those who fund such perks.

Hopkinsville Democratic Rep. Jeff Taylor, who won a special election in western Kentucky’s 8th District earlier this year, apparently feels the heat of voters’ disapproval of secretive government, agreeing at a recent campaign forum to sign the pledge when confronted by Republican contender and signer Walker Thomas.

Taylor still hasn’t submitted a signed pledge.

Yet considering he agreed to sign under pressure from a campaign opponent indicates he understands it’s politically beneficial to oppose cryptic government.

The fact that pledge signers include at least one of the candidates in most House districts and in 19 of the 27 races identified as being among the most competitive by political strategist Les Fugate, executive vice president of RunSwitch Public Relations, further confirms: transparency is good politics as well as sound public policy.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who faces a challenge to his own 95th District seat in Floyd County from Prestonsburg attorney Larry Brown, a pledge signer, has so far refused to even allow House members the opportunity to vote on transparency bills approved by committees chaired and dominated by his own party.

Doesn’t Stumbo know that the good-ol’-boys’ approach of doubling down on defending the status quo of closed-door government is so yesterday as evidenced by the fact that 30 states — including neighboring Missouri, Tennessee and Illinois — now make information about retirees’ benefits, including names of individual pensioners, transparent?

Doesn’t he recognize that open government is always in vogue?

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute; Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at

Bluegrass Institute News Release: Transparency a winning issue in Tuesday’s history-making election

pledge-iconFor Immediate Release:
, Nov. 9, 2016

Contact: Jim Waters @ (270) 320-4376

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Voters handing Kentucky Republicans an overwhelming — and historic — majority in the state House of Representatives during Tuesday’s presidential election clearly indicated support for a more open, transparent and accountable government.

Perhaps nowhere was this clearer than in the 95th District where House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, lost his bid for reelection after snubbing his opponent Larry Brown’s request that he follow the example of several winners in Tuesday night’s campaign and sign the Bluegrass Institute’s Legislative Transparency Pledge.

“Voters made their support for more open, transparent and accountable government by rejecting the refusal of the entrenched House Democratic leadership to keep all transparency policies from moving forward in the Kentucky General Assembly,” Bluegrass Institute president Jim Waters said. “They recognize that the environment of transparency is critical to making significant progress toward reforming the commonwealth’s pension, education and health-care policies.”

Forty of the 100 state representatives now have signed the 67-word pledge, which vows support for “making the commonwealth’s legislative pension system fully transparent, including requiring the disclosure of the name, status and projected actual retirement benefits and benefit payments from the Legislators’ Retirement Plan, Judicial Retirement Plan, Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System and Kentucky Retirement Systems of all current and former members of the General Assembly.”

“We enthusiastically congratulate all Kentuckians who stepped forward to run for office and help the GOP attain overwhelming majorities in the state House and Senate by working very hard and running extremely successful races across the commonwealth,” Bluegrass Institute president Jim Waters said. “The Bluegrass Institute will continue to promote those policies that are helping us make Kentucky great: free enterprise, individual liberty and limited — and transparent — government.”

For more information, please contact Jim Waters at, 859.444.5630 ext. 102 (office) or 270.320.4376.

Bluegrass Beacon — Change the culture of secrecy: Pledge transparency

BluegrassBeaconLogoA recent S&P Global Ratings survey declares that the commonwealth where Lincoln was born now has the nation’s worst pension crisis, a distinction previously held by neighboring Illinois, known as the Land of Lincoln.

The only ones who can ultimately apply the prescription needed to fix what S&P describes as a $31.2 billion shortfall will be the 138 members of the Kentucky General Assembly, which makes addressing the pension deficit the numero uno issue in the current political campaign.

Using S&P’s numbers, eliminating the pension deficit today would require $7,349 dollars from the piggy banks of every single one of the 4.3 million men, women and children in Kentucky.

Yet while it’s the greatest threat to Kentucky’s economic vitality and jeopardizes funding of every other government program – as well as casting doubt on the availability of future retirement benefits themselves – most Kentuckians don’t know much about the public-pension plans.

While current ongoing audits should reveal important information about how the Kentucky Employees’ Retirement System – the largest of those plans – arrived at the point of near-insolvency, which should lead to ideas about possible solutions, more of the commonwealth’s elected officials need a stronger level of commitment to transparency.

This government that Lincoln reminded is of, by and for the people cannot conduct its business behind a cloak of secrecy while entrenched in a culture that denies those very citizens access to information needed to hold their representatives accountable.

The consequences of creating such a culture includes quiet passage of several bills in recent decades allowing politicians to pad their costly pensions and ensure the healthiness of their own retirement system while revealing even less about personal benefits than state workers and teachers offer regarding the plans in which they are enrolled.

Some politicians have hypocritically called for even greater transparency from those other systems while failing to support more openness for their own system.

Unfortunately, too many of these calls have been about reaping political benefits from talking transparency rather than a rock-solid commitment to changing Frankfort’s culture of secrecy.

Fortunately, an increasing number of state legislators and a healthy segment of candidates running for office this year are demonstrating genuine support for changing that culture by signing the Bluegrass Institute’s pledge to support making the part-time politicians’ pension system transparent.

This narrowly focused 67-word statement vows support for allowing access to the “name, status and projected actual retirement benefits and benefit payments” of both current and retired legislators.

Knowing that transparency is not only sound policy but also politically popular, some incumbents agreed to sign the pledge when pressured by opposing candidates yet have failed to follow through.

For instance, Rep. Jeff Taylor, D-Hopkinsville, promised to sign when challenged by his Republican political opponent Walker Thomas – one of the 70 pledge-signers – but hasn’t done so.

However, the pledge is more than just about good politics or the right vote on specific bills.

It’s about making transparency Frankfort’s default position so that Kentucky’s tallest Goliaths – including its pension crisis – can be brought down.

House State Government Committee chairman Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, returned his unsigned pledge with a note claiming support for revealing current legislators’ benefits but not for “making a pledge of my vote to issues until I see the issue presented in a bill which I read.”

But the pledge isn’t just about a particular bill or voting a certain way. It’s about policymakers agreeing to lead in changing the current environment of state government from one of secrecy to openness and giving citizens a tool to hold them accountable.

If, as Scripture states, “the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God,” then making decision-makers’ benefits available represents the first pull of Kentucky’s pension blinds, which have been closed for far too long.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute; Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at

Bluegrass Institute urges legislators to support pension transparency

bipps-logoBluegrass Institute President Jim Waters offered the following prepared testimony supporting making individual public retirees’ benefits transparent at a recent meeting of the Public Pension Oversight Board in the Capitol Annex in Frankfort:

I would like to thank the members of the Public Pension Oversight Board for the invitation to participate in this meeting today.

The Bluegrass Institute is a state-based, nonpartisan, nonprofit research-and-education organization that offers free-market solutions to Kentucky’s greatest challenges based on the principles of economic prosperity, individual liberty, a respect for the lives and properties of others, and limited, transparent and open government.

Since the Bluegrass Institute’s founding 13 years ago, making government at every level – federal, state, county and local – more transparent has been a vital part of our mission.

We’ve found strong support for our efforts on both sides of the political aisle, including from leading policymakers in both parties. Influential Kentuckians from former state Auditor Adam Edelen and former Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver to legislative leaders, including Sens. Chris McDaniel, Joe Bowen, Jimmy Higdon, Damon Thayer and Rep. Kenny Imes, as well as representatives of Rotary clubs, tea parties and other liberty and good-government groups – have joined with the Bluegrass Institute to work to make government more open across the board, including as such openness relates to local taxing districts, the state Board of Education and legislators’ votes.

Influential Kentuckians from former state Auditor Adam Edelen and former Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver to legislative leaders, including Sens. Chris McDaniel, Joe Bowen, Jimmy Higdon, Damon Thayer and Rep. Kenny Imes, as well as representatives of Rotary clubs, tea parties and other liberty and good-government groups – have joined with the Bluegrass Institute to work to make government more open across the board, including as such openness relates to local taxing districts, the state Board of Education and legislators’ votes.

While this board has demonstrated strong, ongoing support for shining a brighter light on the retirement systems’ investment fees and practices, we respectfully ask you to expand your strong support for transparency into the largely untouched arena of benefit structures in general, and more specifically, benefits paid to individual retirees and how these benefits were determined.

[Read more…]

News release: Dozens sign Bluegrass Institute’s transparency pledge

Pledge shows support for legislative pension-system transparency, gives citizens another accountability tool and opens the door to future reformssmall-version-of-the-pledge

For Immediate Release: Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016
Contact: Jim Waters @ 270.320.4376

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) —  Nearly 70 incumbents and candidates for state House and Senate seats vowed support for open, accessible and accountable government by signing the newly created Bluegrass Institute Legislative Pension Transparency Pledge. 

A complete list of pledge signers can be viewed here.

The 67-word pledge vows support for “making the commonwealth’s legislative pension system fully transparent, including requiring the disclosure of the name, status and projected actual retirement benefits and benefit payments from the Legislators’ Retirement Plan, Judicial Retirement Plan, Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System and Kentucky Retirement Systems of all current and former members of the General Assembly.”

Copies of the pledge and a self-addressed stamped envelope were sent in September to all incumbents and challengers seeking state legislative offices on the Nov. 8 ballot, as well as retiring lawmakers or those who lost primary bids.

“The pledge is a tool to assist constituents in holding their legislators accountable while also giving conscientious policymakers an effective means of taking an important step forward toward further reforming Kentucky’s worst-in-the-nation public-pension crisis,” Bluegrass Institute president Jim Waters said. “Transparency will create an army of well-informed citizens, equipping them to demand and support policies that effectively address the biggest threat to the commonwealth’s economic security.”

Lawmakers or candidates wanting to add their name to the list may do so by signing the pledge and sending it to the Bluegrass Institute at P.O. Box 11706, Lexington, KY 40577-1706.

A copy of the pledge for signing may be printed out here.

For more information, please contact Jim Waters at, 859.444.5630 ext. 102 (office) or 270.320.4376.