Matt Bevin, the notoriously unpopular Republican governor of Kentucky, appears to have narrowly lost his bid for reelection in the deep-red state. And experts say the teachers who led statewide walkouts last year are the reason why.
Kentucky was one of several red states that saw mass protests last year by educators who were fed up with years of education budget cuts and low pay. In Kentucky, teachers called in sick to protest the passage of a bill overhauling the state’s public pension system, arguing it left educators with less generous retirement benefits and would further discourage new teachers from entering the profession.
While there were several big issues at stake in this gubernatorial election on Tuesday — including abortion access and Medicaid expansion— political experts say Bevin’s attacks on public education and his criticism of teachers likely sealed his fate and buoyed Democrat Andy Beshear, who led the vote by a margin of about 5,000 votes and declared victory Tuesday night, although Bevin has not yet conceded.
“[Bevin] committed a series of unforced errors in his battle with the teachers’ unions, using much more provocative language than necessary, much more combative language than necessary,” Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, tells TIME.
Meanwhile, Beshear—who proposed a $2,000 pay raise for public school teachers, promised to raise their starting salary to $40,000 and pushed for student-loan forgiveness for educators—specifically thanked union members while declaring victory on Tuesday night. Bevin had criticized those plans as promises on which Beshear would be unable to deliver.
“Tonight, voters in Kentucky sent a message loud and clear for everyone to hear. It’s a message that says our elections don’t have to be about right versus left. They are still about right versus wrong,” Beshear said Tuesday. “That our values, and how we treat each other, is still more important than our party. That what unites us as Kentuckians is still stronger than any national divisions.”
For months, Bevin, who was elected in 2015, has been one of the most unpopular governors in the country, according to polling by Morning Consult. His disapproval rating increased sharply to 57% in early 2018, when the teacher walkouts took place in Kentucky. In the latest survey—conducted from July 1 through Sept. 30—53% of respondents disapproved of Bevin, and just 34% approved.
Paula Setser-Kissick was a registered Republican until August 2017, when she asked a question about teachers’ retirement eligibility during a Facebook Live Q&A with Bevin, who lashed out, saying, “If you happen to be a teacher who would walk out on your classroom in order to serve what’s in your own personal best interest at the expense of your children, you probably should retire.”
In response, Setser-Kissick — a digital learning coach for Fayette County Public Schools — registered as a Democrat, ran (unsuccessfully) for a state senate seat on an education-focused platform, and spent the last four months door-knocking for Beshear in Fayette County, where he ultimately won 65% of the vote.
“As the numbers show, our work made a difference, and we’re pretty proud of that,” says Setser-Kissick, 54, who hopes Beshear will solve the problems with the state’s pension plan, fully fund public education and limit the expansion of charter schools in the state.
During the past two years, Bevin has continued to insult teachers. In April 2018, he accused teachers of leaving children vulnerable to sexual assault and drug use during the statewide walkout. “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them,” he said. “Children were harmed — some physically, some sexually, some were introduced to drugs for the first time — because they were vulnerable and left alone.”
A year later, he suggested that teachers were to blame for the shooting of a 7-year-old girl, who was at home during another round of teacher “sick-outs” in March. She was reportedly being cared for by her legal guardian when she was accidentally shot by her 11-year-old brother.
And during a gubernatorial debate last month, Bevin doubled down once again, saying he regretted none of his previous comments about educators.
“I think it’s safe to say the sick-outs definitely played a part in his defeat. Let’s face it, they grabbed the public’s attention. When that happened, it focused the public’s attention on the bad behavior of both the governor and the legislature,” Setser-Kissick said. “I think Andy Beshear’s election reflected how Kentuckians were disgusted with such ugly attacks from an elected official.”
On the campaign trail, Beshear often pointed to Bevin’s teacher-related remarks as evidence that he was “unfit to govern.”
“A lot of people really just see Gov. Bevin as being very abrasive in his style,” says Thomas Matijasic, a history professor at Big Sandy Community and Technical College in Prestonsburg, Ky., and an expert in Kentucky politics. “He really, really insulted a lot of teachers. That might not seem to be a big deal in another state, but I think in Kentucky, where a far lower percentage of people have college degrees, teachers kind of form the core of the middle class, especially in rural areas, and I think there was a really negative impact. Even a lot of teachers who were registered Republicans disliked him.”
In his reelection bid, Bevin aligned himself closely with President Donald Trump, who hosted a rally for Bevin in Lexington, Ky., on the night before the election. His narrow loss in a state Trump won by 30 points in 2016 could now signal potential trouble for Trump’s path to reelection in 2020, especially because Bevin was the Republican candidate in Kentucky who tied himself closest to Trump in both political support and rhetorical style, says Voss. And while Bevin lost, Republicans won the other key state offices that were up for election in Kentucky.
“It’s not a general repudiation of the Republican Party,” Voss says of Bevin’s loss.
Bevin has not yet conceded, and he requested a recanvass of the election on Wednesday — a process in which county election officials check voting machines and absentee ballots to confirm all votes were counted and reported correctly.
But educators and their advocates have already celebrated the election outcome as a win for public education. “This victory demonstrates the power of educators and how the #RedforEd movement is reshaping the political landscape in Kentucky and across the nation,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement. “Educators are empowered and engaged like never before, and they made their presence felt in this election. They invested their shoe leather marching and going door to door. They spent their nights and weekends on the phone, calling voters.”
In Kentucky, even Republican educators say they’re looking forward to change, even if it comes in the form of a Democratic governor.
“Teachers don’t have summers off anymore, they don’t make a lot of money, and they’re certainly not respected by the governor who’s in there currently,” says Charles Clark, the assistant principal at Rowan County Middle School in Morehead, Ky. “I’m hoping that the governor-elect will be much more respectful. And based upon what he’s said and what his actions have been to this point, I think that will be the case.”
Clark, 41, ran in a Republican primary last year against incumbent state Rep. Jill York because he thought she wasn’t a strong enough advocate for public education. (York, who was endorsed in the primary by the Kentucky Education Association, defeated Clark, but later lost the general election to Democrat Kathy Hinkle.)
But Clark hopes that Bevin’s loss sends a message to politicians throughout Kentucky. A registered Republican, he says he did not vote for Bevin, even though he voted for other Republicans on the ballot.
“I hope they realize that how you treat people matters, that trying to degrade or downplay a profession… doesn’t work,” Clark says. “You can’t belittle the largest workforce in the state and expect to keep your office. When you’re supposed to be a representative democracy and you’re not representing your people, then you’re going to lose.”
As a Connecticut state employee and taxpayer, I feel that public service workers are among Connecticut’s greatest assets — and among the most unfairly vilified.
From teachers to sanitation workers to first responders, we care for our children, plow our roads, help the jobless and the poor, build our bridges, and keep our neighborhoods clean and safe. More often than not, public sector workers are bringing home less money than we could by doing similar work in the private sector, but not without good reason.
Yet too often state employees are condemned for having the security that comes with a defined benefit retirement plan. It’s time to change the narrative that wealthy and corporate special interests are spinning about pensions.
From the start of our employment, we pay a percentage of our wages into our pension with every paycheck. Our employer also contributes to the plan, and this money is then professionally invested. As long as we have been working and paying into this system for the minimum number of years required by our employer, we will receive a modest but guaranteed benefit for life once we retire.
This is money that we as public service workers have earned and have agreed to not receive until retirement, with the hope of providing security and stability for ourselves and our families at the end of our lives.
State and local pensions are a great investment for Connecticut taxpayers. According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, in 2016 alone pensions generated $7.1 billion in economic activity. Each dollar invested by taxpayers into public pensions supports $3.54 in economic activity, while each dollar paid out in pension benefits creates $1.42 in total economic output here in our state.
It is important to remember that most opposition to public pensions is funded by billionaires such as the Kochs, the Yankee Institute, and the Reason Foundation — all looking to destabilize state and municipal systems to further their own self-interested agendas.
Then there’s John Arnold, a former Enron energy trader who has become the chief funder of anti-pension activity across the nation, saw his own net worth soar to $3.3 billion dollars by the end of this fiscal year and has spent nearly $50 million over the length of his career on his anti-pension crusade.
Much of the research from the pension- and union-haters is biased, often inflating issues to scare lawmakers into changing if not gutting pension systems. They claim that public employees are greedy and using their pensions to get rich, but the actual numbers show otherwise.
The average public pension benefit in Connecticut is about $36,000 a year. According to publicly available data from the state Comptroller, the average retirement benefit for current tiered, non-hazardous duty employees is around $18,600 a year. Clearly, we’re not getting rich off the system.
The pension haters have a goal in mind: to force public employees into risky defined contribution savings plans like 401(k)s, thereby transferring wealth from working families to Wall Street banks and traders.
In the 1980s, private sector businesses began closing their pension plans and opting for 401(k)s for their employees, but unlike 401(k) plans, public pensions have time to recover from economic downturns like we saw in 2008, which is why they continue to be the most affordable, durable and efficient retirement systems available.
Pensions cost 46 percent less than 401(k)s to administer while achieving the same target benefit. Even the architects of the 401(k), such as Sheldon Whitehouse, acknowledge the inadequacy of this vehicle to provide a dignified and stable retirement in the long term since 401(k) plans were never designed to be the sole retirement plan for Americans.
Every Connecticut citizen should have access to a secure and dignified retirement. However, destroying my pension and forcing me into a 401(k) won’t move Connecticut forward.
Let’s stop beating up on public service workers and begin developing real solutions to the challenges we face.
Xavier Gordon of Stamford is a state employee and president of AFSCME Local 269.
Elsa Solis, a 75-year-old retired state caseworker, tries to stay out of her home as much as possible, spending most of the day volunteering at a local senior center. On a fixed income that hasn’t budged for 17 years, the San Antonio resident can’t afford to fix her central air conditioner and a plumbing leak at her 50-year-old home, which she said is in dire need of repairs.
“I tell people if you can work as long as you can work, continue because once you stop, that’s it. You’re on a level that stays like that and everything has gone up,” said Solis, who worked for the state health agency for 32 years, retiring in 1997.
Solis is among a growing number of retired state employees who have been calling on lawmakers to increase their monthly retirement checks, which the Legislature hasn’t increased since 2001, and to shore up the pension system. Faced with an ever-rising cost of living, retirees say living off their pension checks has become so difficult that they are refinancing their homes, going to food banks, skipping medication and going back to work.
The average monthly pension of the state’s 111,000 retired state employees and beneficiaries is $1,690, according to the Employee Retirement System of Texas. About 18,000 of those retirees live in the Austin area.
Texas House members from the Austin area in June signed a letter asking the Legislative Budget Board to consider injecting more money into the pension system as well as fund an across-the-board raise for state employees next legislative session.
“We rely on these employees to carry out the services and mandates that we place up on them. It is only right for us to honor their service to Texas by ensuring that they will receive the pensions we promised once they retire,” the lawmakers wrote.
More than 50 legislators in total have written letters to the Legislative Budget Board, of which Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Lake Jackson, are members, asking for relief for retired state workers, according to the Texas State Employees Union.
The union held a series of news conferences across the state on Friday about the issue.
The Legislature this year approved spending $1.1 billion over the next two years to shore up the retired teachers’ pension system and distribute a one-time payment of up to $2,000 to all retired teachers and school employees.
Retirees want the same consideration.
“There’s a mentality among a lot of politicians that state workers are expendable, and it bleeds over into the general public,” said Amy Mashberg, who retired from the state hospital four years ago. “We’re not.”
Much of Solis’ monthly pension check of $1,300 goes toward her $400 car payment, $200 car insurance bill and gas, which is guzzled up by her daily trips to visit her sister with dementia at a nursing home. She’s been putting off repairs to her car after a collision two years ago.
Sometimes accepting donations from the food bank and limiting her water use at home, Solis tries to cut costs as much as she can. She said she doesn’t like to accumulate debt after accruing as much as $30,000 in loans while she was raising her two sons on her own on a modest caseworker’s salary.
Solis said she would use any increase to her pension check to help fix her house, pay for her car expenses and pad her savings. She also receives $1,300 every month in Social Security.
“It’s hard,” Solis said. “I’m able to live on what I make, but it would be nice to get a little more.”
Paula Everett, a retiree and member of the Texas State Employees Union, said retirees who are struggling the most are those who have been retired for decades and were in low-paying jobs — like clerical workers and assisted living workers — that yielded smaller pensions.
Jose L. Rocha, who retired from connecting needy individuals with social services for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, is refinancing his Pflugerville home to free up some money.
“I felt that I was going to have a comfortable retirement. Not rich, but I thought I was going to have enough and that I didn’t have to worry,” said Rocha, who worked for the state for 30 years.
Dripping Springs resident Rosaura Gómez said to ease some of her budget constraints, she’s taken jobs here and there since retiring from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Earning a monthly pension check of about $2,300 and not yet drawing on Social Security, she said she would use any boost to her pension for emergency situations.
“When you retire, you really don’t get the amount of money that you get when you’re actually working,” Gómez said, adding that she receives about $13,000 to $14,000 less annually than her salary. “As the years go by, cost of living goes up and my pension pay has stayed the same.”
Rising cost-of-living expenses include health insurance premiums, medication costs, property taxes, car insurance, homeowner insurance, dentist visits and gasoline prices, retirees told the American-Statesman.
Path to depletion
The Texas House this year proposed injecting $150 million over the next two years into the retired state employee pension system but the provision was removed during bill negotiations with the Senate. The Legislature instead prioritized new funding toward public education, property tax relief, Hurricane Harvey relief and the Teacher Retirement System.
State law requires the pension system to be fully funded within a 31-year period — which also means the pension fund is actuarially sound — for lawmakers to give retirees any sort of pension increase.
As of August 2018, the latest data available, the pension fund was nowhere close to being actuarially sound but instead was on a path to depletion by 2096 if contributions to the system did not increase.
The state contributes 9.5% of gross payroll, agencies contribute 0.5%, and system members contribute 9.5% of their salaries.
It would take a lump sum contribution of $4.8 billion to make the pension fund actuarially sound while maintaining current contribution rates for both members and the state.
Employee unions fear the tenuous health of the pension system might turn people off from pursuing a state job. The turnover rate of state employees was 19.3% in 2018, the highest in at least 12 years. The most common reason non-retiring employees cite for leaving is because they want better pay and benefits, according to the State Auditor’s Office.
“You have Bucees paying $15 an hour and Costco paying $15 an hour. You have state employees, depending on where you work, making anywhere between $12 and $14 an hour and a lot of time they require degrees. That’s what we’re fighting against,” said Joe Montemayor, an organizer for the Texas State Employees Union.
The union also is calling on the Legislative Budget Board to take emergency action on an across-the-board pay raise. Lawmakers in 2016 used emergency funding to increase salaries for Child Protective Service workers amid a slew of child abuse deaths.
“It’s getting really tough to be a public employee. One point in time, folks (worked) for the state with the understanding that whenever they retire, they would be taken care of, but it’s not the case anymore,” Montemayor said.
Every month, 73-year-old Suzan Benge lives on just $771 in disability payments, $100 in food stamps and $14 in state low-income subsidy. So when her credit card debt hit $18,000 earlier this year, she felt she had little choice but to join the rising tide of American seniors filing for bankruptcy.
The elderly are far more visible in U.S. bankruptcy courts these days than in previous generations. Baby boomers 65 and older are racking up far higher levels of debt than their parents, who were raised during the Great Depression, and a growing minority are finding themselves tipping from desperate financial trouble into bankruptcy.
The fate of seniors living on the edge was highlighted last year in data from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, a long-term academic study that has been collating information on U.S. bankruptcy filers since the early 1990s. According to a 2018 report …
1 in 7 people who file for bankruptcy in the U.S. are now age 65 or older — an almost fivefold increase over just 25 years.
In 1991, those 65 and older made up only 2 percent of bankruptcy filers, but by 2016 that had risen to more than 12 percent, says Robert Lawless, one of the report’s authors and a professor at University of Illinois College of Law. About 800,000 households filed for bankruptcy that year, which works out to approximately 98,000 families or about 133,000 seniors since many file jointly as couples, he adds.
Over the same period, the elderly grew as a percentage of the U.S. adult population, but only from 17 percent to 19.3 percent. The trend is a side effect of several colliding social and economic forces in the United States that are making the later years of people such as Benge extremely stressful. Seniors are living longer and paying ever-higher medical costs for the privilege of staying alive; many have little or no company pension and scant personal savings to fall back on.
In 1989, only 1 in 5 Americans age 75 or older were in debt; by 2016, almost half were, according to the most recent U.S. Federal Reserve survey of consumer finances. The rise in senior debt comes at a time when the wealth gap between rich and middle-class or poor Americans is at an all-time high, according to a study last year by the Pew Research Center.
By 2016, the wealth of upper-income Americans had more than recovered from the post-2008 recession, but the wealth of lower- and middle-income families was at 1989 levels, highlighting the long-term rise in income inequality in the U.S.
As these low- to middle-income families age, many are being pitched into debt-burdened retirement by several structural trends, including the decline of trade unions, with their power to negotiate real wage increases, good pensions and retiree health care packages; the disappearance of defined benefit pension schemes; steep health care inflation; and a sharp rise in middle-class families helping pay for children to go to college.
“The baby boomer attitude to debt has not turned out to be as frugal as you would think it would be, having parents who lived through the Depression. Partly it’s because they have jobs that don’t keep up with inflation and they might have to have five or six jobs to make ends meet,” says Kevin Leicht, head of the sociology department at the University of Illinois. “They have to be really skilled to come out the other side with a pension they can live on for 25 years. Companies have offloaded all the risk onto employees.”
After the Great Depression, the U.S. gradually built a financial safety net for retirees, based on Social Security payments to supplement company pensions or private retirement savings and Medicare to pay for most health care costs. But by the end of the last century, this “golden age” of retirement security was largely over.
Seniors who start Social Security payments before the age of 70 are heavily penalized. Most companies have switched to 401(k) retirement plans that fluctuate with the stock market, leaving retirees bearing all the risks; and the rising cost of health care has left many seniors with large out-of-pocket bills that are not covered by Medicare — for many Americans, at least $100,000 per person over the span of their retirement.
Leicht says many baby boomers face this problem of an endlessly delayed retirement. “Retirement is an elusive dream” for some, he says. “That’s why 60 is the new 30 — because the lack of economic stability means 60 can’t be 60 anymore. To make a 401(k)-based system work, you have to contribute steadily to it for 40 years and that requires a lot of self-management” — not to mention spare cash to put into it.
Catherine Collinson, CEO of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, says we tend to think of today’s generation of retirees living in the “golden era of the defined benefit plan” with a guaranteed income. But this is a myth.
“Only 35 percent had a company-funded pension plan and only 60 percent have any kind of retirement account or personal savings,” Collinson says, adding that a quarter of retirees in the U.S. have an annual household income of less than $25,000.
By the standards of Suzan Benge that’s a lot of money: Her annual income totals just over $10,000. But thanks to bankruptcy, she’s got her recliner, her toilet paper and her year’s supply of dish soap. “Up to a few months ago, I was making three credit card payments and it was eating up my entire income,” she says. “Now I feel rich.”
Public pension advocates had some good news to celebrate in several states’ legislative sessions this year, according to an analysis by the National Public Pension Coalition released Monday.
“We’ve certainly been able to move the ball forward in a way that public employees have not seen in quite a lot of time,” NPPC Executive Director Bridget Early said in an interview.
In Texas and New Hampshire, retired public employees received a cost-of-living adjustme&
Colorado legislators eliminated an employee contribution increases slated to kick in for local government employees that the 2018 legislative session enacted.
In Wyoming and Oklahoma, public employees and retirees laid the groundwork for legislation to add COLAs in their 2020 legislative sessions.
Ms. Early attributed the positive changes in part to helping policymakers understand the impact on retired public servants, especially when COLAs are cut or not kept up with inflation, and on local economies. “Looking at what pension spending can do to a state economy is really important,” she said.
Another factor is a focus on education spending, including teachers’ pensions. “I do think it follows the narrative around the states, where the lack of funding for education has caught up. With 2020 an election year, teachers are going to pay attention to this,” Ms. Early said.
In the July 28 Post and Courier, the editorial staff wrote “A vision for South Carolina pension system reform in 2020.”
Although editorial staff members are well-intentioned, they couldn’t be more wrong with their approach to South Carolina’s state pension system.
South Carolina’s state pension system is in good shape, and over the last couple of years, lawmakers have been making full payments into the system. If lawmakers decided to close the state pension system to new hires, as the editorial suggests, they would be making the same fateful mistake that other states and municipalities have made in the past.
Michigan, West Virginia, and Alaska have all, at one point, closed their pension systems to new hires. Not only did the unfunded liability of their respective pension systems worsen, but recruitment plummeted and they had a hard time retaining qualified state employees.
In Palm Beach, Florida, and Branford, Connecticut, these municipalities made the same mistake and saw their public safety officers head for the door to seek employment in other departments with better benefits.
Things got so bad in these states and municipalities that West Virginia, Palm Beach and Branford reopened their pension systems to retain quality employees and relieve their operational budgets.
South Carolina lawmakers should not repeat the mistakes of other states and cities by closing the state’s pension system to newly hired public employees. By continuing to make employee and employer contributions, the pension system will continue to stabilize.
National Public Pension Coalition
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