LEXINGTON, Ky. — Following the release of a 505-page bill over the weekend, Kentucky’s Republican governor embarked on a mini-statewide tour Monday to pitch an overhaul one of the country’s worst-funded public pension systems.
Gov. Matt Bevin spoke for more than 90 minutes on Monday to a group of local business leaders in Lexington, the state’s second-largest city, with plans for similar stops in London and Owensboro on Tuesday. This comes after Bevin has appeared on numerous talk radio programs and sat for newspaper interviews in Ashland, Bowling Green and Barbourville.
Yet Bevin has still not called a special session of the state legislature to vote on the bill, a sign he might not yet have the votes needed to pass it. Since unveiling the proposal last week, lawmakers across the state have held town hall-style meetings on the proposal that have attracted scores of angry public workers, including more than 300 people in Madison County. On Monday, a Republican state representative from Madison County announced on Twitter he would vote against the proposal.
“There is no way to change me from a ‘no’ (vote),” Rep. Wesley Morgan told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “The feedback that I have gotten from people in District 81 is that they are not for this.”
Morgan’s announcement is evidence of the difficult decision facing lawmakers from smaller, rural districts where a large number of voters are public employees. Many of those representatives are Republicans who helped the GOP win a majority in the state House of Representatives last year for the first time in nearly 100 years.
Bevin helped elect many of those new Republican lawmakers by campaigning across the state and raising money for them. On Monday, he seemed to urge business leaders to contact state representatives and threaten not to donate to their political campaigns unless they vote for the pension plan.
“Money talks in the political world, sadly. It does. It’s necessary. It’s part of how people get elected,” Bevin said. “If you have supported people in the past, call and say, ‘Listen, I need you to step up and do the hard things.'”
Bevin’s proposal would freeze the pensions for most current employees once they hit 27 years of service, moving them into a 401(k)-style plan that does not guarantee a monthly pension check for life. Multiple groups representing teachers and state workers have opposed the plan, with several groups planning a rally at the state Capitol on Wednesday.
Bevin appeared frustrated with the amount of opposition to his plan. Kentucky’s pension systems are at least $33 billion short of the money required to pay out retirement benefits over the next 30 years, a number that gets worse every year. In one of the state’s largest pension plans, there are more retirees getting benefits than there are workers contributing to the system.
Bevin’s proposal would require state workers to contribute an additional 3 percent of their paychecks toward retiree health benefits. And the plan would require state lawmakers to make annual payments of nearly $2 billion to the system, or about 20 percent of the state’s annual general fund spending.
“The idea that this is being done on the backs of specific classes of Kentuckians is nonsense,” Bevin said. “You know who it is being done on the back of? People who pay taxes. That’s who is paying for it.”
Multiple credit rating agencies have downgraded some of the state’s bond ratings because of the debt, and multiple studies have consistently ranked Kentucky’s system among the worst funded in the country. That’s one reason why the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest business group, endorsed Bevin’s plan last week.