Friday, April 6

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Looking down the marble stairs that lead from the third floor of the Capitol in Frankfort on Monday, I saw democracy in action.

Thousands of teachers lined the steps, offering high-fives, hand-slaps, and hugs as I made my way down into their protest, which crowded the handsome stairwells and cavernous rotunda. Their energy was infectious and welcome.

I thought to myself, this is what the First Amendment was talking about when it guaranteed the right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances.

The whole scene gave me a lift. I needed one after the Majority resorted to some very low jinks in order to unveil the tax plan and budget for the first time that same morning.

As my pastor, Cynthia Campbell, reminded me at an Easter brunch, budget and tax policy are moral documents. They deserve deep scrutiny and serious reflection. They got neither.

The 2019-20 budget, for which debate was cut off in the Senate, has its good points, including more money for pension reserves and for a badly underfunded adoption and foster care system. It increases basic K-12 school funding by $19 per student. This is a step in the right direction but is not enough to compensate for years of cuts and stand-pat appropriations. Sadly, for higher education, it ensures that students on many public campuses will pay higher tuition and creates a fiscal crisis for institutions such as Kentucky State and Morehead. The Senate’s budget also steals $310 million from the Public Employee Health Insurance Trust Fund, the impact of which is uncertain.

Teachers stayed late again on Monday as the budget debacle played itself out. They continued to let their voices be heard, just outside the doors of the Senate chamber, moved to action by years of budget cuts, reductions in benefits, personal humiliation, threats to their profession’s future, and last Thursday’s attachment of pension “reform” to a sewage bill. The latter seeped to approval in a mere eight hours, accompanied by no testimony, no actuarial analysis as required by law, and no funding for the unfunded liability.

We said there was no way the Majority could top that willful legislative vandalism. The Majority said, “Hold my beer.”

Like the pension bill earlier, the “surprise” tax reform was crafted in the dark and revealed for the first time Monday morning. We voted on it three hours later. When it passed, just before the gavel came down Monday night, we were still holding the Republicans’ suds.

I’ve long publicly advocated for comprehensive tax reform that raises new revenue. That is not what we got. It is now clear this was ad hoc tax policy written behind closed doors and adopted on the run. 

Democrats didn't know when we voted -- and still don't know -- why taxes were adjusted as they were. Who was consulted on these changes? What data were used? What impact will this have five years or a decade from now? What we do know is that this budget/tax plan seems to raise revenue on the backs of teachers, retirees, and everyday working Kentuckians.

Let’s look at some of the specifics. As described by Jason Bailey, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, this new approach shifts tax burdens off big corporations and the uber wealthy and moves them onto the rest of us. 

Bailey explained, “Although the official estimate is that it would bring $248 million more in net revenue by the second year, the plan relies heavily on a fading source in a cigarette tax increase and very uncertain new revenues from conformity to the federal tax code... Claims that these tax changes will make Kentucky more ‘competitive’ and generate more revenue by attracting businesses and individuals to Kentucky are unfounded and have been disproved by experiments in numerous other states including Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, and Louisiana.”

Yes, the Majority has the power to do this. Elections have consequences. I will even admit that 20 years ago, when Democrats controlled both legislative chambers, they might have done the same thing. That doesn't make it right. As I tell my twin kindergarteners all the time, "I don't care who started it." It was wrong then. It's wrong now.

Also wrong are the critics who question why teachers mounted such a huge protest.  Naysayers demand to know, “Didn’t teachers get what they wanted?” So, let’s look at what has happened.

At best, teachers have been misunderstood and underestimated. At worst, what they got was contempt, scorn, and disdain from those who control state government.

True, the last-minute pension bill passed by the General Assembly was better than the outrageous versions trotted out earlier. But expecting teachers should be grateful? That’s like forcing someone’s hand into the fire and expecting thanks when you pull out their scorched fist.

The choice of background music for Monday’s demonstration by educators was no mystery. The teachers – 15,000 strong – sang the chorus of Twisted Sister’s "We're Not Gonna Take It” in unison. That wonderful 80’s glam rock gem was still ringing in my ears as I drove home Monday night.

Teacher protests shouldn’t have been necessary to force successive rewrites of so-called “pension reform.” Yes, the cost-of-living increases that teachers already have helped to fund were saved from Republican cuts. The basic years-of-service structure in the existing pension plan was preserved for current teachers. Teachers will be able to use, toward their retirement, the sick days that they have accumulated up to December 31, 2018, but not after that.

What teachers didn’t get is respect.

You too might be on the streets with placards and bullhorns if you had been dismissed as ignorant and selfish. Who wouldn’t object to being compared with unpatriotic World War II lawbreakers who hoarded sugar and butter? Our Governor helped create the teachers’ outrage, and solidarity with this kind of open contempt. (Note to future legislators: Think twice before attacking a group of people who organize our communities, design instructional materials, and teach children for a living. These educators were more than ready to tackle Frankfort.)

Teachers also were infuriated by the legislative process through which pension, budget, and tax bills were concocted, as were those of us in the minority. The public’s work was done behind closed doors without proper analysis and without participation by stakeholders or by Democrats who represent a significant portion of Kentucky.

You may not know what it is, but there is always a reason when shrouds are thrown over what public officials do.

What we do matters. How we do it matters too.

If you want to understand why teachers are protesting, also credit them with caring about the future of their profession. New teachers are the losers in “pension reform,” and the marchers who filled Capitol Avenue know what that will do to the recruitment of high quality faculty colleagues.

Future teachers are still ineligible for social security but will have no inviolable contract on which to base a secure retirement. They will have, instead, a hybrid cash balance plan that guarantees only the money they put into it (a zero percent rate of return). This “guarantee” is calculated on a 10-year rolling average, which means it doesn’t really guarantee much of anything. Including the worst years of the Great Recession, we haven’t had a 10-year period since the Great Depression with negative stock market growth. And guess what . . . for the privilege of having this “guarantee,” teachers will have to give 15 percent of their annual returns back to the State.

Educators are supposed to celebrate that? They knew they had to speak and to act.

Public servants need to pay attention, especially when the people speak in big numbers.

There’s a lot about Roseanne Barr I don’t like, but if progressives had paid more attention to the eight years of her TV sitcom’s first run, they might not have been so shocked by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. She saw the Conner family increasingly shut out of the American dream. She was skeptical of “the system” because she didn’t see it working for her and hers.

(FYI, Roseanne is back, with more than 18 million viewers of her sitcom’s first new episode. She grabbed a 5.1 rating in the 18-49 demo -- a group that’s fairly important at election time.)

In the long, moving monologue with which Roseanne closed her program’s first eight years, she admitted, “I realized that my dreams of being a writer wouldn't just come true; I had to do the work. I learned that dreams don't work without action; I learned that no one could stop me but me.”

Over the closing credits appeared this quotation from T. E. Lawrence…Lawrence of Arabia:

"Those who dream by night, in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that all was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible."

I believe Kentuckians have opened their eyes . . . and, if we work together, positive change is still possible. 


Robert Pieroni2018