After listening to my Kentucky colleagues in P-12 and higher education complain about the spending cuts in Governor Matt Bevin's proposed state budget the last few weeks, I feel compelled to point out the obvious: there's no such thing as a free lunch.
The Governor's budget calls for a 4.5 percent cut in higher education spending this year, followed by an additional 4.5 percent cut next fiscal year. On the P-12 side, while the proposed budget preserves base per-pupil state spending, the same 4.5 percent cut does affect other education programs like teacher professional development and Family Resource and Youth Service Centers (FRYSC) that provide a host of physical and social supports to children from low-income families. But the budget also allocates nearly one billion dollars toward the state's teetering teacher pension plan in which many university faculty members and all P-12 certified employees participate.
I am deeply invested personally and professionally in these issues. and I'm also concerned about the impact of these cuts. I am employed by a state university where I train the next generation of school administrators. Indirectly my work has an impact on hundreds of thousands of P-12 school children, whom I have served in one capacity or another for 20 years. I participate in the Kentucky Teacher Retirement System, which I'm counting on for a significant portion of my financial security someday. And I'm well aware of the valuable, often unrecognized work that goes on in our FRYSC's.
But Kentucky has been on a collision course with economic reality for years. We simply cannot continue spending money, or in the case of the state retirement system, committing to spend money in the future, that does not actually exist. The one billion dollars the Governor is allocating toward KTRS is merely a Band-Aid; far greater resources and reforms will have be generated in the future to address this monster. The crisis is the product of long-standing negligence on the part of Republican lawmakers who have not adequately funded the system and Democrat lawmakers who refuse to acknowledge that our commitments are unsustainable.
We should reward our public employees with a good retirement system. But reform is also essential. Over time, the retirement age for teachers must rise, benefits (especially health insurance benefits) must be more modest, and at least part of the system must be converted to employee-managed investments. And billions more in state spending must also be set aside to cover our commitments to retired and active state employees. Other Kentuckians who do not participate in KTRS might be justly resentful of the sacrifices they must make as taxpayers and the public services that must be cut to guarantee educator pensions, while struggling themselves to save for their own retirement.
If educators expect taxpayers to preserve our retirement system and continue fully funding our schools and universities, where do they propose to find that money in the state budget? What specific combination of tax increases or other spending cuts should cover these costs? Will we permit gambling in the state? Or increase corporate income taxes? Or perhaps we should eliminate various state tax credits, say like the one that allows a credit for post-secondary tuition expenses? And would any of these ideas individually raise enough money to cover the retirement hole, all education spending, and all the other public services we expect to receive? Or should we just keep spending money we don't have, leaving an enormous financial debt to the very P-12 school children we claim to be so selflessly serving?
Governor Bevin has suggested we need a major overhaul of the Kentucky tax code to ensure fewer of these crises in the future, and expects to make specific recommendations next year. If we're not satisfied with that timetable, then what are the options?
I dread these spending cuts too. But Kentucky educators need to either a) suggest the specific sacrifices they want taxpayers to make on their behalf, or b) grit their teeth and bear the pain along with everyone else.