Kansas lawmakers on Wednesday overturned Gov. Laura Kelly's veto of an unscheduled $51 million contribution to public employee pensions and other provisions she struck from the $18 billion state spending plan.
The Senate and House both carried the two-thirds majority needed to override the budget item vetoes before bringing this year's session to its ceremonial close.
Republicans blasted the Democratic governor's decision to block the payment to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System and funding set aside for mental health programs.
Kelly urged lawmakers to set aside funds in the interest of fiscal responsibility, saying the extra KPERS payment was unnecessary. Funding for the other vetoed items, Kelly said, was found within existing state revenue streams.
“The governor’s efforts to trim spending would have helped ensure Kansas has the ability to address any unforeseen emergencies without cutting core services," said Ashley All, spokeswoman for Kelly. "The governor is disappointed that the Legislature failed to exercise fiscal responsibility and she urges them to be more mindful stewards of taxpayer dollars in 2020.”
The Senate overturned the line item budget vetoes by a 27-11 vote. The House followed with an 86-30 vote.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said it was disingenuous for the governor to refer to herself as the "education governor" while attempting to take away a payment to the retirement fund used by 71,000 public school employees.
"I can only anticipate that throughout the state there was a ripple of gasps, of shock, of surprise," Baumgardner said.
Earlier this year, lawmakers made a $115 million contribution to cover a skipped KPERS payment from several years ago. Other delays in KPERS contributions were paid for with GOP-backed layering.
Retirement benefits weren't affected by the $51 million payment or the governor's veto.
"This truly is an extra payment," Kelly said.
Baumgardner said KPERS for too long has held the unfortunate distinction of being the savings and loan system for whoever happens to be governor, regardless of party affiliation.
"Today is our opportunity to not draw a line in the sand but to draw a line in the cement that KPERS is not to be taken from by an executive branch," Baumgardner said.
Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, said he heard from teachers following the governor's veto who were concerned about the long-term viability of KPERS.
“Many of us have championed that we want to again solidify KPERS, make it more solvent," Waymaster said. "That $51 million payment that we had put in helps us do that.”
Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa, said he was "surprised to see legislators who voted to delay or skip 15 payments in the past nine years now try to spin themselves as the champions of KPERS."
Republicans in both chambers expressed concern with funding for mental health programs and crisis centers, despite assurances from Kelly that revenue is already in place.
"Believe me when I tell you no crisis center will lose a nickel of funding," Kelly said. "That money is there."
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said representatives wanted to ensure funding for K-Tracs, a system the state uses to monitor prescription drugs. Ultimately, Ryckman said, good policy prevailed.
“We’re battling a crisis with opioids, and this is probably the best tool we have," Ryckman said. "The majority — in fact, over two-thirds of the members of this body — didn’t want to leave that to chance that it could be funded.”