School districts closed their doors across the commonwealth Monday as teachers descended on the state Capitol to voice their displeasure with eleventh-hour pension changes and a state budget they worry will deal another blow to public education.
Hundreds of teachers, students, state workers, and upset Kentuckians blanketed the steps of the Capitol and crammed the rotunda and hallways in one of the largest coordinated demonstrations Frankfort has seen in years - filling the building with regular chants of "Find funding first" and "We won't back down."
Brian Harmon, a high school art teacher in Campbell County, told WUKY he and his colleagues have reached a breaking point.
"I've been a teacher for 16 years and just seeing the funding dwindle and dwindle and then to have the government just come in and propose a budget that can just devastate the schools for our students," Harmon said. "People accuse us of fighting for our own raises and our own benefits, but I'm really fighting for our students."
Lexington teacher Traci Rust showed up carrying a toilet seat, referencing the wastewater bill that become a vehicle for the fast-tracked pension reform bill passed in a matter of hours Thursday. On it is written "Stop crapping on Kentucky's future."
"Over the course of 14 years, I've paid $70,000 into the pension system," she said. "That's $700 every month that I'm paying in, but my state's not matching that for me."
In addition to structural changes for future teachers, moving them off of traditional pensions and into less generous hybrid cash-balance plans among other provisions, protesters expressed dismay with a process they saw as rushed and secretive. Many demonstrators also co-opted Gov. Matt Bevin's comments referring to "thuggish" behavior on the part of some pension bill opponents, donning shirts with "#ThugLife" printed on the back.
Protesters cycled in and out for the duration of the morning and into the afternoon, with a smaller but still vocal audience awaiting House members as they filed in to vote on a biennial budget and revenue bill.
Tax Reform or Tax Shift?
Republicans introduced and approved a long sought-after but rapidly debated tax overhaul Monday that opts for a flat 5 percent tax rate for individuals and corporations - a change expected to cost the state nearly $200 million over the next two years.
The revenue proposal tacks sales taxes onto a variety of services, ranging from car repair and dry cleaning to landscaping, a move backers anticipate will raise more than $436 million.
Detractors hammered the measure as a patch job and corporate giveaway, crafted with no minority input and designed to shift the tax obligation from the wealthy to middle and working class families. Sen. Ray Jones likened the overhaul to failed policies enacted in other states.
"We all have heard what took place in Kansas, where taxes were cut on corporations and the common folks were asked to pick the burden up. That's essentially what this is. It's Kansas lite," the Pikeville Democrat charged.
Senate Republicans acknowledged the imperfect nature of the compromise bills, but they argued it will expand the tax base, boost Kentucky's competitiveness, and put the state on a fiscally sustainable path.
"This is the first structurally balanced budget in my 22-year career, that we are not using basically the savings accounts to pay for recurring expenses," Senate President Robert Stivers explained.
GOP leaders defended the shift toward a more consumption-based tax and pointed to a budget that fully funds pensions, restores school transportation funding cuts, and allots a record amount in per-pupil spending. The budget bill does, however, keep 6.25 percent cuts for public colleges and universities.
Possible Spending Snag
Even with legislators in his party stressing the interconnected nature of the two-year budget and the revenue package, both measures could encounter a hurdle in Gov. Matt Bevin.
Monday, the executive tweeted: "I am very concerned that the current proposals from the General Assembly may not meet these basic standards of fiscal responsibility. It is our obligation to ensure that any budget and tax changes put Kentucky on a stronger financial foundation. We have ample time left in this legislative session to thoughtfully do exactly that."
Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist also offered his two cents on the budget and tax plan winding its way through the Kentucky legislature, writing, "The purpose of tax reform is not to serve as a Trojan Horse for a net tax increase to raise revenue for state government."
The revenue and budget bills emerged from the General Assembly around 8 p.m. Monday night, just ahead of a 10-day gubernatorial veto window.