Kentucky lawmakers pass pension overhaul despite teacher protests

Kentucky lawmakers passed a pension reform bill Thursday, sending it to Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk -- but also prompting backlash about the speed of its passage, reports said.

The proposed pension overhaul would preserve benefits for most workers, but do little to address the state’s massive debt.

The 291-page proposal came up for a vote suddenly Thursday, taking the place of a sewage bill that was on the docket.

The GOP-controlled House approved the bill 49-46, and the Senate later passed it, 22-15, as about 200 teachers and other opponents chanted "Shame on you" from outside the chambers, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.

Bevin defended the passage of bill.

"Tonight 49 members of the Kentucky House and 22 members of the Kentucky Senate voted not to keep kicking the pension problem down the road," the governor tweeted, but it was not clear when he planned to sign it.

The bill came up so quickly that some lawmakers signaled that they didn't know how it would financially affect the state. Republican Rep. John "Bam" Carney said lawmakers expect the plan to save $300 million over the next 30 years. But Kentucky is at least $41 billion short of the money it needs to pay retirement benefits over that same time.

"There was some hope that some of the things we could do in pension reform could make a larger impact on that future liability, but at the end of the day there just wasn't the will to do that," Acting House Speaker David Osborne said.

Morgan Taylor, a 28-year-old high school chemistry teacher from Rockcastle County, told the Courier-Journal that lawmakers had "clearly not had time to even read" the bill before voting.

"As a teacher, I would never, ever give my students something that I haven't read myself," she said. "I think a select group of people know what's in this (bill) and everyone else is just expected to toe the line."

As of 10:30 p.m. local time, the bill had not been posted online for the public to read, FOX 41 reported.

Democratic Rep. Tom Burch, reflecting the impassioned pleas among teachers and public workers, called the bill "garbage" as he slammed it on the table during a hastily called committee meeting Thursday.

"This bill is going to be found unconstitutional," Democratic Rep. Derrick Graham said, according to FOX 41. "Remember this day. Let your voices be heard in November, for those that were with you in the grind and those who were against you."

The bill removes some of the most vilified provisions of previous proposals. Current and retired teachers, who are not eligible for Social Security benefits, would still get annual raises of 1.5 percent in their retirement checks. Current workers would not have to work longer to qualify for full benefits.

Retired teacher Lydia Coffey chants "Vote them out" as lawmakers in Kentucky debate a bill to make changes to the state's pension system, March 29, 2018, in Frankfort, Ky.

Retired teacher Lydia Coffey chants "Vote them out" as lawmakers in Kentucky debate a bill to make changes to the state's pension system, March 29, 2018, in Frankfort, Ky. (Associated Press)

But new hires would be moved to a hybrid plan. They would be guaranteed to get back all of the money they and taxpayers contributed to their retirement accounts, plus 85 percent of any investment gains. The state would keep the other 15 percent.

Teachers told the Courier-Journal that the bill would significantly diminish benefits for future teachers and discourage young people from considering teaching as a career.

“How are you going to attract and keep good teachers in the state when they don’t have a retirement?” Holbrook asked.

Almost immediately after the bill's passage, Fayette County Public Schools announced that classes would be canceled Friday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.