ELLIS — Sen. Rick Billinger told a crowd at a legislative coffee here Friday he expects a bill authorizing payment to the state’s retirement system will become law despite the governor’s opposition.
The Goodland Republican from the 40th District joined Rep. Ken Rahjes, R-Agra, of the 110th District for the Friday morning gathering. Both represent Ellis in their respective districts. They were joined by Rep. Barb Wasinger, elected last year to the 111th District representing Hays, Munjor, Victoria and southeast Ellis County.
In 2016, the state delayed a $92.6 million contribution to the state pension system to help balance the budget. KPERS has been underfunded for about 25 years.
Senate Bill 9 authorizing a $115 million payment to KPERS was the first bill passed by the Senate this session. The Feb. 5 vote was unanimous, passing it to the House, where it also passed unanimously on Feb. 22.
It was presented to Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday.
“She doesn’t want it and I’m not sure that she’ll sign it. I do believe it will become law. If it sits on her desk for 10 days, it just automatically becomes law and I believe that’s probably what will happen,” Billinger said.
The governor’s budget included a plan to reamortize the retirement plan to save $770 million over the next five years. But Billinger said in the long run — a 30-year finance plan — it would have cost the state much more.
“It’ll cost us another $7.4 billion. That’s with a ‘b.’ And I don’t want to put that on my grandkids. I don’t think any of you want to,” Billinger said.
“I think we need to make sure that we meet our commitments, which include KPERS, which includes our roads, which includes mental health, includes all the things that are important to us,” he said.
Billinger pointed out the state has a projected fiscal year 2019 ending balance of $905 million, but he said that is actually deceptive.
“If you really peel the onion back, that ending balance of $905 million, when you peel that back, $317 million was borrowed from the PMIB, so that’s a loan,” he said.
The Pooled Money Investment Board invests money from the general fund.
Money is also still being taken from the Kansas Department of Transportation, he said.
“There’s still $200 million in there coming from KDOT. We’re still sweeping. And it includes that missed KPERS payment,” he said.
“I do not believe that it’s right that we should build up ending balances with missed KPERS payments and we sweep from KDOT for money that we borrowed from the PMID or any place else,” Billinger said.
Due to a miscommunication, Wasinger arrived about 45 minutes late, but stayed more than half an hour after Billinger and Rahjes left for a legislative coffee in Stockton.
The legislators also discussed other topics during the event.
Wheatland KVC Hospital
Billinger said he believes KVC Wheatland Hospital in Hays will remain open. In a letter earlier this month, the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services notified KVC it had violated federal law by co-mingling different patient groups in its juvenile psychiatric hospital here. Billinger said there had been talk of moving the facility’s 24 beds to Wichita, leaving the western half of the state with no juvenile mental health facility.
“Hopefully we’ll keep the beds there and maybe we’ll even be able to add beds in western Kansas,” he said.
Wasinger said she would do whatever is needed to keep the beds in Hays.
Billinger said he is pushing to once again have representatives placed in rural areas to help families with admitting elderly to assisted living or nursing home facilities, rather than through a phone line to Topeka.
Billinger said he noticed this year the Kansas Department of Corrections has a $9 million item in its budget request to treat hepatitis C. He said he supports the request to keep it from getting worse in the future.
“It’s very contagious and if we don’t get on top of this and treat it, next year when I come to visit with you, what will that number be?” he said.
“I’ve recommended we find the $9 million and treat these folks and I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
More money overall is needed in the corrections budget to hire more officers, Wasinger said.
“You should see these corrections officers. They bring us basically crime scene photos for us to see. I don’t know why anyone would want the job. It’s so dangerous. And we don’t have enough people. They don’t have enough backup,” she said.
Rahjes, who chairs the higher education budget committee, said about $10 million has been added to that budget.
“It’s kind of a placeholder. We don’t know what’s going to happen here in the end when we get the big, final (budget) bill,” he said.
Internet and food sales tax
Rahjes said a proposal would seek to collect more sales tax on internet purchases with the goal of reducing sales tax on food.
He said it’s not a tax increase on online purchases, but rather closing a loophole on taxes that are not be collected to make the field more fair for the state’s “brick and mortar, mom and pop” business.
“It’s not going to be a ton of money, but it could bring a significant amount. What we’re going to do with that money is try to reduce your sales tax on food,” he said.
That plan would have a “ratchet effect,” he said, continuing to decrease the food sales tax if the state’s economy grows, he said.
Wasinger on her first year
Wasinger has experience as a Hays city commissioner and Ellis County commissioner, but described her freshman year in the House as “drinking from a fire hose.”
She said one thing she’s learned is that western Kansans “need to get louder.”
“We need to say ‘It’s our turn.’ We feed the world out here in western Kansas and people forget that,” she said.
“And we need roads to get to our places. We need help with bringing the rural workforce out,” she said.
“We need to get more forceful. Otherwise, rural Kansas will shrivel up because we’re not making enough noise,” she said.