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Local teachers protest pension bill

Much like hundreds of teachers around Kentucky, whose protests shut down schools in several districts around the state, Harlan County educators are not happy with a controversial pension reform bill approved Thursday night by the General Assembly.

Teachers were in downtown Harlan on Friday morning with signs in hand to protest after learning State Rep. Chris Fugate would be appearing on WTUK to discuss the issue with Jackie Cornett.

“We have been betrayed,” said Evarts Elementary School teacher Tammy Fields. “This is one of the lowest paid professions in the state of Kentucky…we’re here to stand for our rights, our pension and more importantly to be there for our students…we believe in what we do. We feel strongly about what we do.”

Fields said she feels Fugate let the teachers down by changing his earlier stance.

“He said he would not vote for that bill, but in essence, he did,” Fields said. “There’s very little change to that bill, and he let us down.”

In an interview later in the day, Fugate explained why he voted for the bill.

“Basically, last summer there was pension bill proposal put out that I could not support because it did a lot to the people that were currently working,” he said. “I felt like it was not fair to those people. There was a second proposal…that was put together by the House and the Senate and once it came out there was a group of us that said we can’t vote for that.”

Fugate said the second proposal was still unacceptable.

“Then, Senate Bill 1 came out,” Fugate explained. “Senate Bill 1 was still a bill that, to me, still did things to current teachers that I could not go along with.”

The state legislature passed a bill on Thursday addressing the pension situation for teachers and other state employees.

According to the Associated Press, Republican lawmakers passed a pension overhaul that preserves benefits for most workers and does little in the short-term to address the state’s massive debt. They did it in response to one of the worst-funded public retirement systems in the country and in defiance of a powerful teachers’ union that vowed political retribution. The 291-page proposal suddenly appeared Thursday afternoon. By 10:30 p.m., it had raced through the House and Senate and was on its way to the governor’s desk. The speed of the vote prompted warnings of unintended consequences, but Republican leaders noted much of the bill’s content has been vetted publicly for weeks in similar bills.

Gov. Matt Bevin tweeted his support for the bill, saying public workers owe “a deep debt of gratitude” to lawmakers who voted to pass it. But many teachers in the state’s second-largest school district reacted by saying they would not come into work Friday, prompting the Fayette County Public Schools to announce they would close for the day.

The GOP-controlled House approved the bill Thursday night, 49-46. Eleven Republicans joined 35 Democrats in opposing the measure. The Senate later passed it, 22-15, as teachers outside shouted “Shame on you!”

Fugate said Senate Bill 1 negatively impacted COLA (cost of living allowance) raises for retired teachers.

“They get a 1.5 percent raise every year,” Fugate said. “That bill took it down to .75 percent, and previous bills had taken it down to .50 percent…the second thing Senate Bill 1 did, if you had 20 years of service as a teacher, then you would be able to go on as many years as you wanted to work and you could retire with the same benefits as they always have. But if you had less than 20 years, it changed it…so I still felt like that was not fair.”

According to Fugate, the same group made it known they would not support the bill.

“We talked to the leadership of the House and made some suggestions which were close to Senate Bill 151,” Fugate said. “When it came out yesterday, it’s not like it was snuck out of the bottom of a pile somewhere, because we had been working on it for the last couple weeks.”

Fugate said the reworked bill was introduced as Senate Bill 151.

“When it came out as Senate Bill 151, I felt like I could vote for it because of three reasons,” Fugate said. “It restored the COLAs back to the retirees at 1.5 percent. The second – and the biggest thing for me – it left the current teachers…in the same plan they’ve always been in. It would not change.”

Fugate said the Senate Bill 151 allows all current teachers to receive the benefits they were promised when they started.

“One negative thing, it capped the sick days at the end of this fiscal year,” Fugate said. “The sick days they earn up to the end of the fiscal year can still be used as service at the end of their career. But, any sick time earned after that cut-off date, they’ll still get paid for those days but they can’t add it on to their service time.”

Fugate said he believes there is some misunderstanding about the bill.

“A lady called me and said ‘don’t vote for Senate Bill 151 because we have to have our COLAs reinstated’,” Fugate said. “That’s actually what Senate Bill 151 did. It restored their COLA. I think maybe some people just don’t understand what the bill is. I understand that, because it’s not been explained publicly as much as it should have been.”

Fugate said new teachers would go into a cash hybrid plan.

According to the Associated Press, new hires 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. The bill would also remove new teachers from an “inviolable contract” that would protect them from future benefit changes.

“This is really what the Kentucky State Police did in 2013,” Fugate said. “I know there are some people that may feel like I’m against the teachers, and that’s not true…if something had not been done there’s a chance that nobody would get a pension in the years to come.”

Fugate, who is retired from the Kentucky State Police, pointed out the bill affects not only teachers but other state employees as well including Kentucky State Police troopers, road department workers and city and county government employees.

“I know some people may not think I’m fighting for them, but I have been fighting for them,” Fugate said. “This pension proposal is a result of our fight to keep current teachers where they’re at.”