The House moved a step closer to sending Gov. Laura Kelly a bill passed by the Senate allocating $115 million to make up for the decision three years ago to skip a major payment to the state's pension system.
The Republican-led House is expected to vote Friday to approve Senate Bill 9, which was unanimously adopted two weeks ago by the Senate. The bill could test the Democratic governor's willingness to collaborate with the Legislature. She didn't include funding for the overdue payment to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System in her budget presented to legislators in January.
"I think this is a key step for us to take," said Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican and leading advocate of the bill. "Today is our day to keep our promise to the 300,000 members of the KPERS' system."
Investing $115 million in KPERS will improve financial standing of the system's school employee group, Johnson said. The unit of KPERS has a 61.6 percent funding ratio in terms of long-term obligations, well below the system's overall ratio of 68.4 percent.
Democrats in the House and Senate have questioned the GOP leadership's earmarking of hundreds of millions of dollars for KPERS and income tax breaks before resolving a Kansas Supreme Court order tied to a possible increase of $90 million in spending on K-12 public schools. Also unresolved are Kelly's recommendations to expand Medicaid, improve child welfare programs and invest in infrastructure projects .
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said he had voted 15 times in the past nine years against Republican proposals to delay payments to KPERS or to refinance the pension system. He objected in 2016 when the GOP found enough votes to skip a $97 million pension payment. With interest piling up at a rate of more than $20,000 each day, the debt expanded to $115 million.
"Today, to pit school children against seniors, they bring a bill that says, 'Let's put the money back in KPERS. We've all the sudden found fiscal responsibility.' Welcome to the party," Ward said.
Bunker Hill Rep. Troy Waymaster, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the committee would examine fine print of the state's budget during the 2019 session.
But, he said, the state general fund had cash reserves to move ahead with payment the postponed contribution to KPERS.
"This is rectifying actions that were done in past years of not making this payment," Waymaster said.
The Legislature shouldn't have delayed the 2016 payment and failed to keep a promise to make the skipped contribution to KPERS within 24 months, said Rep. Kathy Wolfe-Moore, a Kansas City Democrat who supported the bill.