TOPEKA — Legislators on Monday said they thought funding of Kansas’ public employee retirement system was moving in the right direction, but big hurdles remain to fully funding the program.
Alan Conroy, executive director of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, presented the latest system valuation Monday to members of the Joint Committee on Pensions, Investments and Benefits.
KPERS held steady at 67 percent funded last year, according to Conroy’s report, and its investment returns exceeded expectations. However, $9 billion in debt owed to the system still looms, and lawmakers would have to put $600 million into the system in the fiscal year beginning July 1 just to keep from adding more debt.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and member of the committee, said funding the plan at 67 percent was an improvement from previous years. In 2012, the program was just 52 percent funded.
“We’re going in the right direction. We’re throwing some speed bumps in there that are very unfortunate but not a death sentence to the pension plan,” she said, referring to KPERS payments the state has delayed.
The state will have to repay those on top of its work to reduce KPERS debt. Conroy said it is important KPERS be fully funded so it can remain stable and provide benefits to members even in tough economic years.
“It’s not ‘if they come,’ ” Conroy said. “Eventually, they will come, so you want a strong base to be able to absorb those kinds of reductions.”
The joint committee’s chair, Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican, said there was no risk to the benefits KPERS members receive, but lawmakers needed to ensure the state contributed enough.
“While we are able to pay those benefits — looking to the future to make sure we pay our share and don’t make the next generation pay our share,” Johnson said.
Lawmakers will have to spend more than $623.5 million on KPERS in order to tread water for the fiscal year starting July 1. Johnson said lawmakers might have some difficult decisions to make on spending.
Kelly said she thought it unlikely lawmakers would be able to come up with that much money for KPERS.
Lawmakers approved $420 million in that fiscal year, according to Conroy’s report. The state is projected to end that fiscal year with approximately $355 million left over, and the Legislature has to add money to K-12 schools to respond to a Supreme Court ruling that its previous plan to fund education was unconstitutional.
The state also will have to repay a bond it issued in 2015 to help fund KPERS. So far, the bond has been a net gain to the state. The $1 billion investment is achieving a nearly 8-percent return compared to the 4.68 percent in bond interest the state will have to pay.
Kelly said she voted against the bond and would do it again, but it has performed well so far. If a downturn in the economy means the state gets a low return, it could end up owing money.
“We just know historically that things can’t keep going up,” Kelly said. “They’re going to come back down.”