WATCH: In Kentucky, Sewers, Pensions and Protests

October 23, 2018
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by Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

After the legislative debate over public pensions in Kentucky took a surprising turn, protesters voiced their opposition. (A still from "The Pension Gamble.")

It was March of 2018, and time was running out for Kentucky Republicans.

With the legislative session drawing to a close in just days, the state legislature needed to pass a budget — and that necessitated voting on a bill aimed at addressing the state’s foundering public pension systems.

The bill, which was supported by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (R), had stalled in the face of opposition by Kentucky’s public school teachers, who feared what the proposed changes might mean for their promised financial security.

So, state Republicans tried a last-minute maneuver — one that took the debate over pensions into the sewer. Specifically, into the space on the legislative agenda where the legislature had been scheduled to debate and vote on a sewer bill.

As the new FRONTLINE documentary The Pension Gamble recounts, instead, members of the state legislature were brought into a committee room in the capitol building, given copies of a new pension bill, and informed that a vote on it was just around the corner.

Democratic lawmakers, who hadn’t been given the chance to review the new bill before being told a vote was imminent, were incredulous — and angry: “I’m concerned first of all that what we’re doing is illegal,” Kentucky State Representative Jim Wayne (D) said.

But the vote proceeded.

“It was an unpleasant task I was asked to do. No one wants to make other people unhappy,” Kentucky State Representative Jerry Miller (R), the chairman of the Kentucky House State Government committee, told FRONTLINE of bringing the bill to the floor for a vote that day. “But you have to consider all of the factors. We couldn’t pass a budget if we didn’t have a pension bill, and that is why I agreed, ‘We’ve got to get this bill back to the floor so we can have a debate, a full debate on it,’ knowing that the optics were terrible.”

(“I’ve voted on plenty of bills I didn’t get to read, unfortunately. I had no choice,” Miller said as the surprise debate unfolded.)

That scene — and the cascade of public outrage that followed — unfold in The Pension Gamble, a FRONTLINE documentary premiering Tuesday, October 23 from producers Marcela Gaviria and Nick Verbitsky and correspondent Martin Smith.

Around half of all states haven’t saved nearly enough money to pay for the benefits they’ve promised to government workers. The Pension Gamble investigates the forces and choices that have driven America’s public pensions into this multi-trillion-dollar hole, tracing how state governments have shorted pension systems both by withholding pension contributions to cover shortfalls, and by waging risky bets on Wall Street.

The film focuses in particular on the volatile fight over pensions in Kentucky, a state whose once-flush pension system for its police, firefighters, teachers and other public workers is now among the worst-funded in the nation. The documentary tells the story of how it got that way — a story with broader consequences for public employees everywhere: “What is Kentucky’s problem is New Jersey’s problem, is Illinois’s problem, is Connecticut’s problem, is California’s problem,” Gov. Bevin tells FRONTLINE. “This is a crisis of epic proportion in the United States of America. And it’s time we wake up and address it.”

The “sewer bill” drama was only the latest development in the battle over Kentucky public employees’ pensions: As The Pension Gamble explores, Gov. Bevin’s proposals to reshape the pension system have been met with resistance. So, too, have his inflammatory comments about the state’s teachers.

The Bevin-backed pension bill that was introduced in place of the sewer bill would have offered new teachers a 401(k)-style system rather than a guaranteed pension plan — a change that was made to the pension system for the state’s police, firefighters, and thousands of other public servants several years earlier. It wouldn’t have impacted the pensions of current teachers. For now, Kentucky’s attorney general has blocked the bill in court.

But as The Pension Gamble explores, Kentucky’s teachers worry that when the time comes for them to retire, the state won’t have the money to pay their pensions. (The pensions of some other Kentucky state workers are facing insolvency in around three years.)

“Many of us teachers are working paycheck to paycheck, trying to make ends meet,” says public school teacher Christina Frederick-Trosper. “I have no savings. So, my pension is everything. Without that, I won’t survive.”

The Pension Gamble premieres Tuesday, Oct. 23 at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST on PBS stations (check local listings) and online at pbs.org/frontline.

 

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