FRANKFORT, Ky. — Comparing lawmakers from his own party to children coveting sugary cereal, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin on Monday vetoed a $480 million tax increase the legislature used to fuel record increases in public education spending.
Bevin's veto came a week after thousands of teachers across the state held a protest at the Capitol, clogging the halls just outside his office to chant "shut it down" and "vote them out." Two weeks ago, nearly two dozen school districts were forced to close as teachers collectively called in sick to protest a separate bill that would make changes to their retirement system by closing the traditional pension plan for new hires in favor of a hybrid option that puts less risk on the state.
Lawmakers were able to cool tensions by voting to impose a 6 percent sales tax on services like auto and home repairs along with a 50-cent per pack increase on cigarettes in a state with the highest smoking rate in the nation. The new money was enough for lawmakers to spend $4,000 on every public school student for the first time in state history, and the state's largest union urged educators to return to work.
But Monday, Bevin vetoed both the tax increase and the state's two-year operating budget. He declared them irresponsible, saying the new taxes would not generate as much money as lawmakers thought and would leave a $50 million hole in the budget after two years. He criticized lawmakers for approving $600 million in new spending while ignoring some of the state's contractual obligations, including funding for a high-speed internet network in all 120 counties.
"I did not take this job to make people politically happy," Bevin said. "Those of you who are parents understand this. Sometimes making the hard decision, putting the sugary cereal back on the shelf, doesn't make everyone involved in that situation happy. But sometimes it is the right thing to do."
The Kentucky Education Association said Bevin's vetoes are "just one more example of his blatant disrespect for Kentucky's public employees." The Jefferson County Teachers Association, which represents one of the largest school districts in the country, urged its members to take a personal day on Friday to come to the Capitol and urge lawmakers to override the vetoes.
Bevin warned teachers not to strike, noting it is illegal in Kentucky and "would be a mistake."
"It would be irresponsible and I don't think they want to do the irresponsible thing," Bevin said. "I think what they do want to do is educate young people and they want to make sure there is funding there to do it."
Lawmakers could override Bevin's vetoes when they reconvene on Friday. The Republican leaders of the Kentucky House and Senate said Bevin is "misguided," and asked to meet with him before he officially vetoes the legislation. Bevin appeared to reject that offer, officially vetoing both bills Monday afternoon.
Chris McDaniel, the Republican chairman of the Senate's budget-writing committee, disputed Bevin's assertion the new taxes would not generate enough revenue to balance the budget, adding the plan was written "in consultation with members of the executive branch." The owner of a concrete company, McDaniel said the new taxes and the budget would make Kentucky a better place to own a business.
"It really is puzzling as to why you would not want those types of measures implemented in the Commonwealth," McDaniel said.
House and Senate Democrats supported the vetoes, saying the tax plan would only benefit the wealthy. They also urged Bevin to veto the changes to the teachers' retirement system. Bevin would not say Monday what he planned to do with that bill.
"It's not nearly enough. Not even close to being enough. But it's a good first step," Bevin said.