FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky teachers turned out in droves on a snowy day to keep the political heat on the Republican-led legislature — warning they’ll remember what happens to their retirement benefits come Election Day — and state lawmakers say they heard them.
But lawmakers were uncertain about how or when they’ll address the teachers’ concerns.
About 2,000 teachers and other school employees marched around the state Capitol, waved signs and chanted as they rallied Wednesday. Their goal is to bury a proposed pension overhaul and win more state education funding from lawmakers.
“I’ve never seen teachers this united over a single issue,” said Tim Giles, a chemistry teacher in central Kentucky. “We’re talking about our standard of living for the rest of our lives.”
Now they’ll wait as GOP lawmakers make final budget decisions and decide whether to jump-start the stalled pension legislation.
Braving the late-season snow, the school employees marched from the Kentucky Education Association headquarters to the Capitol, chanting, “We’ll Remember in November” — an election-year warning against efforts to reduce their retirement benefits.
Kentucky has one of the worst-funded public pension systems in the country and efforts to achieve reform are being closely watched nationwide by teachers and other public workers in other states.
Acting House Speaker David Osborne said legislative leaders aren’t actively discussing the pension bill, but cautioned that doesn’t mean it’s dead.
As for the teacher rallies, he told reporters: “Their voices have been very loud in this whole process. And we’ve heard them.”
The show of force comes amid growing unrest among public educators nationwide, led by thousands of West Virginia teachers who walked off the job for nine days earlier this year to secure a 5 percent pay raise.
Kentucky teachers are not fighting for a pay raise but are loudly calling on lawmakers not to touch their retirement benefits. The state is at least $41 billion short of what it needs to pay the pension fund over the next 30 years. State officials say the pension bill would save taxpayers about $3.2 billion over the next 20 years and stabilize the situation.
Teachers said they are upset by proposals that would achieve savings mostly from temporary cuts to the annual cost-of-living raises for retired teachers. The larger raises would be restored once the system is 90 percent funded. Currently, the system is 56 percent funded.
“It is important to know that you are winning this debate,” House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, told teachers as they rallied. “It is important to know that you have to stay in this debate and in this game ’til the very end.”
Huddled in the cold, teachers waved signs and chanted “Find funding first,” urging lawmakers to pass revenue enhancements to support public pensions.
The rally comes at a pivotal time, with lawmakers negotiating a new state budget and as Republican Gov. Matt Bevin tries to revive the pension bill, which stalled in the state Senate earlier this month.
Nina McCoy, a retired biology teacher from Martin County, said teachers were “backed against the wall” in the pension debate and need to keep the pressure on lawmakers.
“I think they’ll sneak around and do anything they can … if we look the other way,” she said.
Teachers also criticized parts of the education budget passed Tuesday by the state Senate.
“We need to take our legislators to school,” said Jessica Hiler, a teacher from Fayette County. “It is our job to school them on what is wrong with this budget.”
The pension debate has further strained relations between teachers and the state’s GOP governor. Bevin’s sales pitch angered many teachers, who bristled at his recent remark that teachers opposing pension changes were “ignorant” and “throwing a temper tantrum.”
Bevin had appeared to tone down his rhetoric, saying in a weekend message that he had “tremendous respect” for teachers.
But in a radio interview Tuesday, Bevin warned that the pension plan is at risk of collapse without changes.
Bevin called on supporters of the pension bill to speak up. He said lawmakers now are “hearing only from the angry people who want to destroy what’s good for this state.”
Joanne Kidwell, a middle school teacher, said Bevin deserves credit for pushing to increase state funding to support the pension plans.
But in doing so, said the Republican from Carter County, he has belittled teachers and damaged his own political standing should he seek re-election next year.
“His rhetoric has been very damaging,” she said. “I don’t think he needs to worry about having a second term.”
Associated Press Writer Adam Beam contributed to this report.