FRANKFORT, Ky. — With the chants of hundreds of teachers ringing in their ears, Kentucky lawmakers voted Friday to override the Republican governor's veto of a two-year state budget that increases public education spending with the help of a more than $480 million tax increase.
The votes came as thousands of teachers rallied inside and outside the Capitol, forcing more than 30 school districts to close as Kentucky continued the chorus of teacher protests across the country. The rally took on a festival-like atmosphere in Kentucky as some teachers sat in lawn chairs or sprawled out on blankets. Crosby Stills, Nash and Young's hit "Teach Your Children" bellowed from the loud speakers.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin noticed the teachers, too. He told reporters he saw them hanging out with their shoes off, smoking and "leaving trash around." He bemoaned the "hundreds of thousands of children" he says were likely left home alone because schools were closed and some parents likely did not have time to find child care.
"I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them," Bevin said, according to a video posted to Twitter by a reporter for WDRB-TV. "I guarantee you somewhere today a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were home alone because a single parent didn't have any money to take care of them. I'm offended by the idea that people so cavalierly and so flippantly disregarded what's truly best for children."
A spokesman for the Kentucky Education Association declined to comment on Bevin's remarks.
Stephanie Ikanovic, who has been a teacher for 21 years, said earlier in the day she did not want to be out of her classroom, but said she felt compelled to come to Frankfort to advocate for her students.
"I want to be in my classroom instructing future citizens, but I'm afraid that spending at the state level is getting worse and worse, and we need those dollars for a 21st century education," she said.
The two-year state operating budget includes record new spending for public education, fueled by a 50-cent increase in the cigarette tax and a 6 percent sales tax on some services including home and auto repair. But Bevin vetoed both the budget and the money in it, calling the bills "sloppy" and "non-transparent." He said they would not raise enough money to cover the new spending.
The veto put Republican lawmakers in a tough position, asking them to vote a second time on a tax increase in an election year. But 57 House Republicans, later joined by just enough Senate Republicans, voted to override, asserting their independence after a tumultuous year marred by a sexual harassment scandal.
"You can stand here all day and act like you are all for (education) until it comes time to pay for it. Well, that's a coward," said Republican Rep. Regina Huff, a middle school special education teacher. "We have to have this revenue to fund our schools."
Democrats sided with the governor, but for different reasons. They said the tax increase disproportionately harms the poor while benefiting the wealthy. They wanted the vetoes to stand, forcing the governor to call a special session of the state legislature to pass a new budget.
The House voted 57-40 to override the veto of the tax increase and 66-28 to override the veto of the budget. Later, without a vote to spare, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 20-18 to override the tax increase veto. In a dramatic moment, Senate President Robert Stivers cast the decisive vote for the override.
The Senate later voted 26-12 to override the budget veto.
The unrest comes amid teacher protests in Oklahoma and Arizona over low funding and teacher pay. The demonstrations were inspired by West Virginia teachers, whose nine-day walkout after many years without raises led to a 5 percent pay hike.
In Arizona, after weeks of teacher protests and walkout threats across the state, Gov. Doug Ducey promised a net 20 percent raise by 2020.
In Oklahoma, teachers ended two weeks of walkouts Thursday, shifting their focus to electing pro-education candidates in November. Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation raising teacher salaries by about $6,100 and providing millions in new education funding, but many say schools need more money.
Kentucky teachers haven't asked for a raise. They are instead focused on education funding and a battle over their pensions. Kentucky has one of the worst-funded pension systems in the country, with the state at least $41 billion short of what it needs to pay retirement benefits over the next 30 years. Earlier this month, lawmakers voted to pass a bill that preserves benefits for most workers but moves new hires into a hybrid plan.
Opponents worry this will discourage young people from becoming teachers. The pension changes have already drawn a court challenge.