A recent S&P Global Ratings survey declares that the commonwealth where Lincoln was born now has the nation’s worst pension crisis, a distinction previously held by neighboring Illinois, known as the Land of Lincoln.
The only ones who can ultimately apply the prescription needed to fix what S&P describes as a $31.2 billion shortfall will be the 138 members of the Kentucky General Assembly, which makes addressing the pension deficit the numero uno issue in the current political campaign.
Using S&P’s numbers, eliminating the pension deficit today would require $7,349 dollars from the piggy banks of every single one of the 4.3 million men, women and children in Kentucky.
Yet while it’s the greatest threat to Kentucky’s economic vitality and jeopardizes funding of every other government program – as well as casting doubt on the availability of future retirement benefits themselves – most Kentuckians don’t know much about the public-pension plans.
While current ongoing audits should reveal important information about how the Kentucky Employees’ Retirement System – the largest of those plans – arrived at the point of near-insolvency, which should lead to ideas about possible solutions, more of the commonwealth’s elected officials need a stronger level of commitment to transparency.
This government that Lincoln reminded is of, by and for the people cannot conduct its business behind a cloak of secrecy while entrenched in a culture that denies those very citizens access to information needed to hold their representatives accountable.
The consequences of creating such a culture includes quiet passage of several bills in recent decades allowing politicians to pad their costly pensions and ensure the healthiness of their own retirement system while revealing even less about personal benefits than state workers and teachers offer regarding the plans in which they are enrolled.
Some politicians have hypocritically called for even greater transparency from those other systems.
Unfortunately, too many of these calls have been about reaping political benefits from talking transparency rather than a rock-solid commitment to changing Frankfort’s culture of secrecy.
Fortunately, an increasing number of state legislators and a healthy segment of candidates running for office this year are demonstrating genuine support for changing that culture by signing the Bluegrass Institute’s pledge to support making the part-time politicians’ pension system transparent.
This narrowly focused 67-word statement vows support for allowing access to the “name, status and projected actual retirement benefits and benefit payments” current lawmakers will get and their retired representatives already receive.
Knowing that transparency is not only sound policy but also politically popular, some incumbents agreed to sign the pledge when pressured by opposing candidates yet have failed to follow through.
For instance, Rep. Jeff Taylor, D-Hopkinsville, promised to sign when challenged by his Republican political opponent Walker Thomas – one of the 70 pledge-signers – but hasn’t done so.
However, the pledge is more than just about good politics or the right vote on specific bills.
It’s about making transparency Frankfort’s default position so that Kentucky’s tallest Goliaths – including its pension crisis – can be brought down.
House State Government Committee chairman Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, returned his unsigned pledge with a note claiming support for revealing current legislators’ benefits but not for “making a pledge of my vote to issues until I see the issue presented in a bill which I read.”
Again, the pledge isn’t just about voting a certain way. It’s about policymakers agreeing to lead in changing the current environment of state government from one of secrecy to openness and giving citizens a tool to hold them accountable.
If, as Scripture states, “the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God,” then making decision-makers’ benefits available represents the first pull of Kentucky’s pension blinds, which have been closed for far too long.
Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute; Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.