The first thing Kentucky teachers need us to understand is that they do not get Social Security benefits.
This is true of teachers in fourteen other states. And it means that those teachers depend entirely on their state pension system. If your state is flush with cash (hey, California), that's not a problem. But if you are in Kentucky, yet another state that has screwed up its pension fund big time and earning the title of most poorly-funded pension in the country, then you are in a bad place.
It's not popular to consider, say, cutting cost of living increases for pensioners. Without increases, inflation slowly but surely reduces the buying power of the pension dollar. And with opposition strong, the proposal to cut pensions was declared "dead" just over a week ago.
But then the Kentucky GOP decided to break out some tools from the Legislator's Bag of Weasel Tricks.
Thursday afternoon, the legislators took a bill about sewage and gave it a 291-page amendment that imposed a variety of changes to teacher pensions. That bill went up for a vote hours later after little discussion and non realistic time in which to examine it. It also went up for a vote without the legally-required study of financial impact. The GOP hailed it as a "compromise" and the governor praised them for not kicking the pension can down the road, which I guess is technically true, as they had instead kicked it into a sewage ditch.
Under the bill, new teachers will be forced into a cash-balance plan, which is less risky than a 401K hybrid plan, but also less likely to yield a great deal of security. The bill also appears to give the legislature the power to change some aspects of the pension unilaterally. Retirement age for Kentucky teachers is now 65, but then, if they want to retire with anything at all like financial security, retirement age for Kentucky teachers is closer to Whenever They Finally Die.
The cost-of-living cut was removed from the bill, but that was supposed to be the source of the big savings. Without the financial impact study, it's not really clear if this bill will even help Kentucky's pension problem. But at least legislators can brag, "We passed something!" And two-tiered system is always good for weakening the union.
But as we have been learning across the country in the past few weeks, there is a limit to how far you can push teachers.
Kentucky teachers suddenly experienced a massive wave of illness on Friday morning, forcing many school districts to close for the day. And across the country, old hands in the union world are getting to explain to the youngsters what a Wildcat Strike is.
And I get to keep making the same point-- when you back teachers into a corner, show them no respect, indicate that you have no intention of pursuing good-faith negotiations, and threaten the future of their profession, you get a strike.
So add Kentucky teachers to the list of teachers who need our support in the days ahead. And stay tuned for the next state that finally pushes its teachers too far.