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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Hundreds of Kentucky teachers cheered Friday as Republican lawmakers decided not to vote on a bill that would cut retirement benefits for one of the nation's worst-funded public pension plans.
The GOP-led Senate was scheduled to vote on the pension bill Friday, but lawmakers quickly called a recess to talk about the bill in private for several hours. They finally emerged shortly after 1:30 p.m. to announce they were sending the bill back to committee for possible changes.
"Individuals wanted more time to consider the position that we are in," Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said.
Outside, teachers cheered when they got the news before erupting into chants of "we won't back down." The showdown comes at a time of growing unrest among public educators across the country, led by thousands of West Virginia teachers who walked off the job for nine days to secure a 5 percent pay raise from the state legislature.
Teachers in Arizona and Oklahoma are considering similar action. In Kentucky, some teachers say they are willing to strike. But Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association, said striking is illegal in Kentucky. She said the only way it could happen is if superintendents agreed to close the schools, adding: "We hope it doesn't have to come to that."
"We're not West Virginia. We're Kentucky. And we are focused on doing our jobs," Winkler said. "We want to be back in school. We don't want to have to be here. But if it takes this many of us to make sure our voices are heard, then that's what we will do."
Kentucky teachers are not fighting for a pay raise but are asking lawmakers not to change their retirement benefits. The state is at least $41 billion short of what it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years. Lawmakers have committed to putting $3.3 billion into the pension system over the next two years to keep it solvent, prompting plans for budget cuts across most state agencies.
"I know what will happen if we don't do anything when it comes to the pensions," said Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado, who supports the bill. "The future doesn't look good, so we need to do something to correct the situation going forward."
State officials say Senate Bill 1 would save taxpayers about $3.2 billion over the next 20 years and stabilize the struggling pension system. But most of that savings would come from temporary cuts to the annual cost-of-living raises for retired teachers, who are not eligible to receive Social Security benefits. The raises would be restored once the system is 90 percent funded. Currently, the system is 56 percent funded.
"(Lawmakers) are trying to save a pension. But it's not the pension we agreed to when we joined the profession," said Adam Hyatt, a teacher at Franklin County High School. "Changing the terms of the deal in the middle of the game is unfair to teachers."
Hundreds of teachers jammed the cavernous halls of the state Capitol, chanting so loudly that the Senate president asked the doors to stay closed as much as possible.
"I think it's disgusting," said Fred Tilsley, a retired teacher from Berea who is a registered Republican. "I will take a long look at the people that are representing me — or supposedly representing me — that are not listening to their constituents."
Senate Democrats, who have only 11 out of the 38 seats in the Senate, seemed emboldened by the protests.
"As long as there's a breath of air in every one of the 11 of us, we're going to fight 'em," Senate Democratic Leader Ray Jones told the crowd during the recess.