Kansas Gov. Brownback working on pension, school plans

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback responds to a reporter's question during an interview with The Associated Press at his office in the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan., Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014.

? Gov. Sam Brownback is working on proposals for changing how Kansas distributes aid to public schools and for bolstering the pension system for teachers and government workers, but wouldn’t discuss the details in an interview Wednesday.

The Republican governor told The Associated Press only that his administration is researching options on pensions and school funding.

His comments came a day after he outlined a plan for closing a projected $279 million shortfall in the state’s current budget. The gap followed aggressive personal income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 enacted at Brownback’s urging. They were designed to boost the economy.

Brownback’s budget-balancing plan avoids cutting spending on state universities and aid to public schools, but Brownback said the additional K-12 funding in the current budget can’t be sustained in coming years.

The plan drew quick, bipartisan criticism because Brownback diverted $41 million for the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System to general government programs.

Those funds were promised under a 2012 law for stabilizing the pension system’s long-term financial health, and GOP State Treasurer Ron Estes said Wednesday other alternatives should be considered.

Brownback defended the reduction in the pension contributions by noting it helped him avoid cuts immediate cuts in education spending. He said the state has made “a lot of progress” on shoring up the public pension system and will continue to do so.

“We’re going to be rolling out and pushing additional things that we can do to address the KPERS long-term situation,” Brownback said. “There’s a couple of different options that people are researching now.”

The state pension system’s projected benefits for retirees are 60 percent funded over the next two decades, but that figure was expected to rise over time until fully covered by 2033. The law enacted two years ago also boosted employees’ contributions.

“He (Brownback) wants to start this underfunding all over again,” said Ernie Claudel, a retired Olathe teacher and school administrator who is also vice chairman of a retirees’ coalition. “He is pressuring the Legislature to go back on its word.”

Brownback remains bullish about the state’s prospects, saying it is “on the rise,” with healthy private-sector job growth and low unemployment.

The budget-balancing plan outlined Tuesday does not tackle the additional projected $436 million shortfall for the next fiscal year, beginning in July.

That figure assumes poor school districts keep receiving additional aid mandated by the Kansas Supreme Court in a still-pending 2010 education funding lawsuit and the state continues to cover higher-than-anticipated costs tied to school construction projects and equipment. Together, those items amount to $253 million in the current budget, according to Brownback’s administration.

“That’s hard to continue,” the governor said.

Budget Director Shawn Sullivan said during an interview Tuesday that the administration would work with legislators on “structural reforms” in how aid to schools is distributed, without being more specific.

Pressed Wednesday for details, Brownback said, “We’re looking at everything.”