While the curtain has barely fallen on the 2011 State Legislature, Sen. Jeff King already has an eye on 2012 and beyond.
King, who represents all of Allen County as part of the state’s 15th Senate District, was in several locales Thursday as part of a districtwide listening tour.
Conversations here, as they’ve been in most of the 40-plus other listening stops King has made in the past two weeks, have centered on a few big-ticket items, including:
— Steps taken to help secure the long-term solvency of the state’s public pension system, which had been faced with a $7.7 billion shortfall over the next 20 years.
— Whether recent cuts of $881 million for public schools, social services and general government administration will be followed by similar cuts in 2013.
— How redistricting, as prompted by population shifts over the past decade, will affect southeast Kansas.
THE BIGGEST hurdle for legislators in the recently completed legislation was devising a plan to eliminate the long-term shortfall with the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System (KPERS), King said.
A compromise bill, drafted in part by King as the Senate’s lead negotiator, will eliminate nearly half of the $7.7 billion shortfall between now and 2033 by nearly doubling the state’s annual contributions, while requiring public employees down the road to choose between paying a slightly higher percentage of their salaries or having future benefits cut.
The new formulas will be enacted starting in 2013.
“It was the only solution that would work,” King said, because it forced increased participation by both sides.
The legislation includes the formation of a study commission that will meet between now and January to devise long-term solutions for KPERS.
King reiterated that public employees are guaranteed the benefits they’ve earned up to now, dispelling rumors some could be cut.
King said he was “very happy” with the legislation signed earlier this month by Gov. Sam Brownback. Much like he did in volunteering to serve as the Senate’s lead negotiator on KPERS, King said he would offer his services as part of the study commission as well.
“One of the biggest problems we make as legislators is in thinking we have all the answers,” King said.
He vowed that the study commission would explore a number of different options, including the potential to move toward a 401(k)-style retirement plan, in which benefits are tied to investment earnings rather than guaranteed upfront, as they are now.
CUTS IN public education, while unfortunate, boiled down to basic math, King said.
The state was able to pare about $880 million from its budget, while cutting funds for public schools about 5 percent.
It would have been irresponsible to force those cuts on other areas of the state budget because education consumes about 53 percent of the state’s spending, King said.
“Next year’s budget is going to be tight, but we hope to avoid more cuts for K-12,” King said.
He also noted legislators preserved the “embarrassingly little” amount they spend on early childhood education, as well as enough to ensure high-speed Internet access remains available to rural areas.
The 2012 legislative session is certain to have “interesting” conversations about the budget, King predicted, because Brownback will have been in office for a year and will likely have several ideas on restructuring some state agencies.
Brownback was sworn in on Jan. 10 and was required to have his budget sent to legislators two days later.
“It could be more controversial, even though cuts may be less than they were this year,” King said.
King offered another red flag for educators: the state’s sales tax increase enacted in 2010 expires before 2013, which could mean another round of cuts two years from now.
King urged lawmakers to begin a study on education funding to find ways for modest funding increases annually instead of its current “Rocky Mountain” spending patterns for schools, in which about $750 million in new funding was incorporated in 2005, followed by drastic cuts since then.
“It’s been that way as long as I can remember in my adult life,” said King, 36.
King said Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer has taken the lead in studying the state’s explosive growth in Medicaid coverage for low-income residents.
“If he can figure a way out of that, he will have become the most productive lieutenant governor in the state’s history,” King said.