COLUMN: Pension reform needed, but not at the cost of our children

COLUMN: Pension reform needed, but not at the cost of our children
Seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  (Source: WAVE 3 News)

FRANKFORT, KY (CNHI) - Kentucky's public pension problem is real and Gov. Matt Bevin should be commended for demanding we do something.

But that shouldn't mean selling out our children.

At this point, does it really matter who is at fault? It does in one way. The unwillingness of past governors and legislatures to honestly confront the problem is indisputable.

They didn't want to risk political reprisal by raising revenues or limiting benefits in order to pay that bill. So here we are. But there's no evidence lawmakers are any more willing now to honestly confront the problem.

Those legislators who support deep spending cuts rather than closing some indefensible "tax expenditures" (loopholes and exemptions) self righteously proclaim the immorality of pushing this bill off on "the next generation."

But if the state pays its pension bills with drastic cuts to an already underfunded education system, that's what we do: make future generations foot the bill for this generation's refusal to meet its fiscal and moral obligations.

Meanwhile, the public does what we always do: demand solutions which don't demand anything from us. Pass expanded gambling or legalize marijuana - but don't raise my taxes. Even if that means stealing from our children.

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The governor's proposed cuts to education will be painful for local school districts, students and parents. But they also could be a backdoor to increases in local taxes to pay for things like school buses as the state walks away from its responsibilities.

That, in turn, may exacerbate the already growing disparity between poor and affluent districts. That of course was the impetus for litigation in the late 1980s which led to enactment of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act - and the last major tax increase in this state to pay for it.

Regardless of what he says, Bevin has demonstrated he is at best indifferent and perhaps hostile to the notion of affordable universal education. I know he and his supporters will cry foul over that statement. But as a journalism instructor told me 40 years ago: "Listen to what they say, but then watch what they do."

Bevin says education is important. But he's done nothing but preside over cuts to higher education and every sector of elementary and secondary education funding except per pupil expenditures for general operations. (He neglects to point out that more of that money must now go to increased pension contributions.)

Lawmakers - of both parties - who go along are complicit.

We have a moral obligation to live up to our promises to state employees and retirees. But it doesn't exceed our moral obligation to our children and the future. I believe our greatest obligation is to our children, and I believe all children are our children.

Lawmakers' disregard for our children belies every statement of moral obligation they utter. You can't promote workforce development while failing to educate properly the future workforce. You can't make me believe you are morally virtuous as you cheat our children, steal from their futures, limit their horizons.

You can't persuade me you believe in individual choice when you restrict public financing only to those academic subjects you or the Chamber of Commerce prefer. You cannot convince me you believe in liberty for all but education only for the few. Don't talk to me about "skin in the game" when you won't put yours in it.

Man does not live by bread alone and you cannot make me agree the world is substantively better with more engineers at the cost of fewer philosophers, theologians, poets or artists.

You can't.

We mustn't allow disingenuous or timid politicians to persuade us either. We're shirking our moral obligation to our children if we do.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.

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