The Richmond Register

April 5, 2013

State workers deserved voice in pension talks

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — The people who work for Kentucky’s General Assembly are hardly known to the public. That’s a shame.

Despite often unflattering stereotypes of government “bureaucrats,” the people who work for the Legislative Research Commission are among the most talented, most dedicated and hardest-working people I’ve ever encountered.

You won’t read any quotes from the people who often write Kentucky’s laws because the LRC staff is scrupulously non-partisan and deliberately stay in the background. That’s not to say they won’t talk to reporters – they do, but with the understanding they’re providing background information on legislation and they cannot be quoted.

Don’t misunderstand. They don’t set policy. They write bills to reflect the aims of the lawmakers whose names appear on the bills. But they provide expertise and understanding which protects against unintended consequences and legal challenges as well as calculate the benefits and costs.

They make good legislators better and limit the damage that might be done by amateurs and hacks. They are among the best state government has to offer, and, while faceless to most of the public, our citizens and taxpayers are deeply indebted to them.

I believe that’s true of state employees as a group. Sure, there are some political appointees and some freeloaders. But that’s no different from employees in any large organization – or even reporters.  But by far, most of the state workers I’ve known work extremely hard, are paid modestly, understand very well they work for taxpayers and see their work as a noble service to the public.

(Full disclosure: I was once married to a state employee who worked incredibly hard at her job and earned far less than she was worth.)

A lot of people don’t realize we have fewer people working for the state now than we used to and they are working harder for stagnant wages in times of budget cuts and static state revenues.

Because Gov. Steve Beshear and lawmakers have (commendably) tried to protect basic operational education funding from budget cuts, the public doesn’t realize just how much overall funding to education has declined in the past five years – zero money for textbooks for example. Nonetheless, overall our schools continue to perform better.

Like state workers in general, some teachers and administrators aren’t as dedicated or hard-working as others. Yet, most of the teachers I know are incredibly driven and work long hours, many of which they’re never paid for. I’ve always found it amusing how many critics of the teaching corps think the teachers they personally know are exceptional. You know, it’s those “other” teachers who are draining the state budget without educating kids.

I kept thinking about all of this during the debate over the state’s employee pension system. The arithmetic seems to back up those declaring imminent financial disaster and clearly lawmakers had to address the problem. There was no easy solution.

But some lawmakers seemed to imply teachers and state workers unfairly take advantage of oppressed taxpayers. But aren’t state workers taxpayers themselves and don’t they serve the other taxpayers?

Unlike the lawmakers, those workers – and county governments by the way – always made their required payments into the pension system. It was the lawmakers who refused to make hard choices when the problem could have been at least ameliorated on the front end.

As I thought about all these things, I couldn’t find a way to avoid the painful decisions on pensions. But I also couldn’t object to state workers’ primary complaint about the process – their exclusion from the discussions.

Seems to me they’d earned that much at least.

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