There’s a banner that pops up occasionally around the Kentucky Capitol that seems to work for virtually every protest. It says, “WE’VE HAD ENOUGH” in all caps. It’s really kinda brilliant. It works for virtually any protest. If I had a sign-making business in Frankfort, I’d make sure to have a couple “WE’VE HAD ENOUGH” banners ready for any given protest group. Why yes, we do have various sizes and colors. Step into our showroom. What group did you say you’re with?
It’s worth taking stock of precisely what Kentucky teachers (at least the ones protesting in Frankfort today) have struggled to endure.
They’ve had enough of presiding over an education system that consistently ranks near the bottom for academic achievement while receiving pay that’s the 7th highest for teachers in America (when adjusted for cost of living). That’s well above the median household income for the commonwealth.
They’ve had enough of lawmakers and a governor insisting that the best time to reform pensions was twenty years ago and the second best time is now.
They’ve had enough of being told by financial economists that the pension promises of the past are putting a rather large hole in the Kentucky ship of state that won’t be alleviated for decades even with a substantial reform.
They’ve had enough of any efforts to give low-income parents in Kentucky any choice among schools.
They’ve had enough of the growing realization that there’s not much moral or constitutional justification for compelling their fellow teachers to support a union, and that the practice may come to an end this year.
In short, I suspect the protesters have had enough of the complaints from people who just don’t want what they’re selling. Lawmakers, parents, taxpayers, and even presumably many of their own colleagues, I believe, have had enough.
Jason Bailey argues in the Frankfort State-Journal that switching Kentucky government employees to a 401(k)-style retirement plan “has little or nothing to do with the state’s main challenge on this issue: how to pay back the existing unfunded [pension] liability.”
In one sense, Bailey has a point. After all, cutting up the credit card you’ve been abusing won’t pay the outstanding balance. But it should be obvious to anyone that keeping the credit card and your bad habits, even after you’ve paid the bills, leaves you with the same propensity for overspending.
The pension obligations themselves represent tens of billions of dollars in the coming decades. The only proper way to deal with a contractual obligation of that size is, of course, to pay it. But it doesn’t logically follow that a tax increase is the best way to fix Kentucky’s pension woes, though Bailey seems to think it is.
If Kentucky’s lawmakers were serious about meeting these pension obligations while respecting taxpayers, they wouldn’t continue to fund wasteful projects near and dear to the hearts of many Kentuckians: new arenas in Louisville and Lexington (and elsewhere), government-run golf courses, government-run resort parks and dozens of other similar wastes of taxpayer money.
Few would seriously argue that any of these entertainment projects is a better use of money than leaving it in the wallets of taxpayers. But Bailey, like many in Frankfort, seems implicitly to do just that. Not directly, of course. But by moving seamlessly from making the moral case for paying one’s bills to casting the pension bust as “primarily a revenue challenge,” Bailey appears duty-bound to believe that every dollar currently spent by state government is not only being spent well, but spent better than billions more dollars currently sloshing around in the private sector.
Maybe all that arena, golf-course and resort-park spending is terribly important. The real question, of course, is how important. When lawmakers start cutting subsidies to college basketball in Kentucky, we’ll all know they’re serious about setting priorities.