Kentucky State Capitol

Two days after the last flurry of legislation passed in the Kentucky General Assembly — ushering in a 10-day period in which Gov. Matt Bevin can veto legislation — political tactics are ramping up across the state, including spam-like texts from an unknown group urging recipients to call the governor and ask him to veto the pension overhaul bill passed last week.

Additionally, the Republican Party of Kentucky (RPK) began sending out robocalls targeting Democratic legislators who voted against the budget bill passed on Monday, asserting that they voted against funding public K-12 education.

These tactics come after a hectic week in Frankfort, which saw Republicans push through a surprise bill on Thursday that puts new teacher hires in a hybrid cash balance plan instead of the traditional defined benefit plan of current teachers.

Republicans then quickly unveiled and moved through a budget and revenue bill on Monday that lowers corporate and individual income taxes, but ends the sales tax exemption for a number of services in order to increase tax revenue.

Democrats — and thousands of protesting teachers who flooded the Capitol Building — criticized both the substance and process of the pension bill, as it did not include a required actuarial scoring. Some have also criticized the legislature’s tax overhaul as regressive, saying it will mostly benefit the well-off and create a larger burden for low and middle-income Kentuckians.

Two independent sources provided Insider Louisville with text messages they received on Monday and Tuesday, in which the sender claimed to be a volunteer with “PSLC.” If such a group actually exists, it would be very small, as a search for the acronym within Kentucky came up empty.

One of the text messages being sent out in Kentucky by an unknown group

“On Thursday the fairly-earned pensions of Kentucky police, firefighters, and teachers were ripped away,” read the texts. “Join AG Andy Beshear in fighting this. We still have time to get a veto.”

The texts went on to ask the recipient to call Bevin and tell him to veto Senate Bill 151, which altered public pensions.

One of the recipients of these texts said they received four identical texts on Monday and Tuesday from different numbers with Kentucky area codes and different names. Insider called each of those numbers and got an automated message from a peer-to-peer texting company, saying that our number “is not associated with an active conversation” before hanging up.

Crystal Staley, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Andy Beshear, told Insider in an email that his office “did not send out these text messages nor request they be sent. We stand with teachers, police officers and public servants against Senate Bill 151 and are prepared to sue if Gov. Bevin signs it.”

Staley added that such spam-like political texts are legal.

On Wednesday, a number of Democratic legislators posted on social media that the RPK was sending out robocalls to constituents in their districts, attacking them for voting against the budget bill on Monday that funded education and teachers.

“I want to thank the Republican Party of Kentucky for calling voters in my district and firing them up even further,” tweeted Rep. Dennis Keene, D-Wilder. “Everyone knows I voted against the bad budget and pension plan and are now calling me to express support as a result of your phone calls. Thanks again!”

Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, posted on Facebook about the “FAKE NEWS robocalls” going out in his district, writing that RPK leaders “are mad that I fought hard and spoke out against their tax increase that cuts taxes on corporations and raises taxes on working families by adding a sales tax to services.”

Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, wrote on Facebook that she was at a meeting of retired teachers from her district when her phone started “burning up telling me that my district is being saturated with robocalls by a party blasting me for being against education. Really???? You all know better. Feel free to share.”

RPK spokesman Tres Watson confirmed to Insider that the party is “doing some calls into a handful of districts in both the House and Senate,” as they felt it was important to communicate directly with those voters “and let them know the truth about their Representative’s vote on this budget and, that while they claim to be pro-education, their vote on this bill says different.”

Watson provided a script of the RPK robocalls, which say that the General Assembly on Monday “passed a state budget that included record levels of funding for education. But your State Representative (name inserted) voted against it!”

“This November, when you go to vote, send (representative name) a message that you aren’t pro-education if you vote against increasing money in the classroom and funding teacher’s retirement and health care. Vote NO on (representative name), just like he voted no on funding our teachers and students.”

The per-pupil SEEK formula for public school districts was increased to a record $4,000 in the budget bill passed by the General Assembly on Monday, which is $16 more than what was proposed by Bevin and originally passed by the Senate, but $55 less than what was appropriated by the original House budget.

However, the progressive Kentucky Center for Economic Policy says that when you adjust for inflation, per-pupil total SEEK funding actually decreased in this budget, and is 16 percent below what it was in 2008.

Brad Bowman, the spokesman for the Kentucky Democratic Party, told Insider that the RPK has to resort to such robocall scripts because voters “know that they are anti-education and they are anti-teacher. They are trying to sell this to people who are not paying attention to what’s happening in Frankfort.”

“We can’t afford textbooks and we tell public employees that they need to sacrifice their benefits for the benefit of the state, and then the Republican Party turns around and gives a $500 million tax break to corporations and the wealthiest among us,” said Bowman. “That’s who they’re standing for, not the average Kentuckian.”

This story has been updated to include Bowman comments and Staley’s correction on her remarks about the legality of such texts.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]