Lawmakers to hear about privatizing KPERS

Three committees of the Kansas Legislature will meet Wednesday to discuss the possibility of privatizing the state’s pension system.

That idea has been circulating among legislators and Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration at least since last fall when budget director Shawn Sullivan and Secretary of Administration Jim Clark presented it as an option during an interim meeting of the Joint Committee on Pensions, Investments and Benefits.

The Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, or KPERS, holds about $16 billion in assets. But its long-term “unfunded liability” — the difference between its assets and obligations already incurred — is estimated at $9.77 billion, according to KPERS spokeswoman Kristen Basso.

In April, though, Brownback signed a bill authorizing the state to issue $1.5 billion in pension obligation bonds. Once issued, proceeds of those bonds will be deposited into the KPERS fund and will slightly reduce its unfunded liability.

The process being discussed at that time was called “annuitization,” or selling off the pension system’s assets and liabilities to an outside company. Officials have not said how such a process might affect the retirement benefits of KPERS’ 289,000 active and retired members.

Wednesday’s meeting, scheduled for 8 a.m. to noon, will involve the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the House Appropriations Committee and the Joint Committee on Pensions, Investments and Benefits.

Sen. Ty Masterson, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, said the meeting will include presentations by four companies that offer annuitization services: Prudential Financial; Security Benefit Group; Fidelity Investments; and Dimensional Fund Advisors.

“We’re just looking at what some of the market options are,” Masterson said.

KPERS provides retirement benefits to most state employees outside the Regents university system, as well as school district, city, county and other local government employees.
Officials for unions representing those workers said they see little benefit to privatizing the system.

“The bottom line is, the KPERS system is a good system. But it has been chronically underfunded,” said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “If you let someone else run it and you still underfund it, it doesn’t solve the problem.”

Rebecca Proctor, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, agreed.

“KPERS has had very strong performance over the last 30 years,” Proctor said. “KPERS also keeps its normal costs low. You would be hard pressed to find a private for-profit company that can do the job as cheaply and effectively as KPERS can.”