We went to print as America was going to the polls, so election commentary will have to wait until next week.
This week, we look at the next election. No, not the 2020 presidential election — the election of our next governor. Primaries are just six months away! And this one issue will dominate the entire campaign: pensions.
Kentucky’s public employee pension crisis is so critical that the award-winning PBS documentary series “Frontline” recently focused entirely on it as a warning of an emerging crisis for many states.
The documentary provides many reasons why Gov. Matt Bevin should be praised for working to find a way to fully fund the pensions for public employees, including teachers and first responders. Because of years of mismanagement — risky market bets, predatory and reckless hedge fund investments, underfunding and two recessions — Kentucky is in a dire situation. Ballooning pension benefits will take money away from education, roads and other vital areas.
Bevin makes a compelling case that our underfunded pension obligations threaten the entire state. His background as a hedge fund manager makes him especially qualified to understand the magnitude of the problem, particularly since hedge funds worsened the problem, “Frontline” showed.
Praising Bevin is difficult for those of us who are opposed to his political ideology and antagonizing antics, among them me. But Bevin is right in many ways.
At the same time, “Frontline” shows why Bevin is the wrong person to lead the reform effort. The primary reason is: Bevin doesn’t believe in government.
Chris Tobe, author of “Kentucky Fried Pensions,” told “Frontline” this about Bevin: “His big issue is to shrink government in Kentucky. Make it smaller. He believes in private sector; he does not believe in government.”
Bevin began his career as a Tea Party insurgent. He is politically and ideologically allied with the Koch brothers and other conservatives who have been orchestrating small-government policy agendas in state governments for decades. Bevin’s ultimate goal is to shrink the government.
In the documentary, Bevin says he does not believe a defined benefit pension system is possible. This means radically transforming the system. But it’s hard to believe Bevin is being forthright about all of our options when his objective is to shrink government.
The public employee pension system can be saved, but only by someone who believes that government is part of the solution.
Skepticism of Bevin is made only worse by his leadership style. The Republican-controlled state legislature tried to jam pension reform through under the guise of a sewage bill and at the last hour.
The absence of transparency, debate and process was governing malfeasance at its worst and violated all (small “d”) democratic principles. The rushed, secretive process prevented our elected representatives from reading, much less debating, the biggest issue facing the state. It shut out all experts and interested parties, including teachers, police and other public employees whose retirements were on the line. It reeked of either incompetence or malice.
The “Frontline” documentary correctly shows that Democrats over the last two decades bear as much, if not the majority, of the blame for our pension problem. But, in one scene showing a committee debating the sewage bill, it was clear that Republican leadership cannot solve this problem alone. Resolving the pension crisis requires consensus building, shared sacrifice, transparency and leadership.
It’s no coincidence that the supermajority Republicans felt enabled to bully their way around the legislature. It takes its cues from the top, and Bevin is the biggest bully of them all.
Bevin insults the very people who stand to lose most, by calling them ignorant and uninformed. He said on the radio that pension reform is “like saving a drowning victim … you just need to knock them out and drag them to shore.” When asked on the “Frontline” about his tone and antagonizing tenor, he said, “If people want to be offended, they can be offended … ”
Bullies cannot be leaders.
The “Frontline” documentary outlines why Kentucky is in a world of trouble, but what isn’t discussed is how pensions, including defined benefits, can work if properly managed. We need a governor who is out to build consensus and save the system… not change it to serve an anti-government, ideological vision.