Policy Documents

Future Shock: Kentucky Politicians’ Opulent Pensions Have Become A Modern-Day Gold Rush

Lowell Reese –
June 11, 2012

The first gold rush in the United States was not — as widely thought — in California in 1849; rather, it was in Georgia in 1828. Gold occurred naturally in a band from Virginia to Alabama, with especially rich veins around the town of Dahlonega in northern Georgia. During the next two decades, thousands of miners began pouring in, joining the Georgia Gold Rush. By the time gold was discovered in a streambed by an employee of Captain John Sutter’s sawmill near Sacramento, California, much of the easily retrieved gold in Georgia had been mined. 

News of the California find tempted many Georgia miners to move west. To discourage them from leaving the Georgia gold field, a local assayer at the Dahlonega branch mint, addressing a crowd of miners on the courthouse steps, pointed to a nearby hill known as Findley Ridge and pleaded: “Why go to California? In that ridge lies more gold than man ever dreamt of. There’s millions in it.” Although many of the miners did not follow the admonishment, they took the assayer’s remark west. “There’s millions in it!” became a famous saying by Mark Twain’s literary character Mulberry Sellers and may have inspired another famous quote, “Thar’s gold in them thar hills.” 

Today in Kentucky the lure of gold remains evident not to “forty-niners,” but to legislators and public employees. The story you are about to read is, on the surface, about gold-plated pensions, the most outrageous aspect; but the main message of this story resides in the subsurface — the attitude of the General Assembly (and governors who once dominated it), demonstrated by flat-out greed and disrespect for the public treasury, which now has put the standard of living of all Kentuckians in jeopardy. The state is $44.1 billion in debt, of which around $9.6 billion is a result of borrowing and $34.5 billion is the unfunded liabilities of the state’s public employee retirement systems. 

With exceptions, public employees in Kentucky remain in their positions — not so much for the pay but for the full compensation package, to wit, the pay, fringe benefits and pensions, which is one of the richest in the nation. Why go anyplace else? In Kentucky, there’s gold in them thar pensions.

While a comprehensive report on the state’s pension systems overall will be provided in a separate publication later this year, consider the following, which is primarily about legislators’ pensions.