Government & Politics

Republicans have one chance to block Kelly’s KPERS, tax vetoes. But will they show up?

Kansas Republicans have a final shot this week at overriding vetoes by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. But just getting enough lawmakers to show up will be difficult.

GOP leaders want to force into law a $51 million pension payment and a bill to hold down some individual and corporate taxes. They will need nearly all their members to return to Topeka on Wednesday to make that happen.

But lawmakers have scattered across the state – and in some cases, the country.

Sen. John Skubal, R-Overland Park, said in a phone call last week that he was about 15 miles from the Canadian border on his way to a weeklong fishing trip. He expressed concern with the pension payment veto, but had no plans to return to Topeka.

“No, I’m not going to cancel my trip to come back,” Skubal said.

The Wednesday gathering will mark the final day of session for the year. It’s frequently a ceremonial event, and lawmakers sometimes skip it.

Rep. Jim Kelly, an Independence Republican who chairs a House committee focused on pensions, wants to override the governor’s pension payment veto. But he acknowledges the final day of session often doesn’t have strong attendance.

“I would think just in my own mind, it would take a great effort to get enough people there that might support it,” he said.

Overriding a veto takes a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. In the House, that’s 84 votes, which is also the number of Republican lawmakers. In the Senate, it’s 27 votes. The chamber has 28 Republican senators.

Since taking office in January, Kelly has vetoed three bills and four budget items. Her vetoes have kept tax and abortion-related bills from becoming law. None has been overridden.

As Republican leaders seek to hand the governor her first override, they have focused on her veto of a $51 million payment for KPERS.

“She is continuing down the road of missed payments, placing the growing debt on our children and grandchildren,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. “Instead of protecting the retirement of hardworking Kansans, Laura Kelly would rather pocket the money to fund her big spending agenda.”

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said vetoing the pension payment gives Kelly more to spend in the short term but will force the state to pay more toward pensions in future years.

Kelly noted the first bill she signed as governor made a $115 million payment to KPERS.

“However, given the large number of critical, unmet needs still facing state government, it is not prudent to add an additional KPERS payment that goes beyond the regularly scheduled payments already being made,” Kelly said.

The payment could have harmed the state’s ability to make full, timely pension payments in the future, she said. Vetoing it provides an “essential cushion” for the state’s savings.

Kelly and Republicans have tangled since January over pensions. At the start of her term, the governor proposed refinancing KPERS, which would have saved the state $770 million in payments over five years but ultimately required Kansas to pay $7 billion more. Lawmakers rejected that plan.

Between the KPERS veto and a handful of much smaller line-item vetoes, Kansas will have $606 million in the bank at the end of the next fiscal year, Kelly said. She added that she vetoed some non-essential spending in part to prepare the state for any unexpected emergencies.

Beyond the pensions veto, Kelly largely approved the budget. It includes millions in additional spending for universities, prisons and state employee pay raises.

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said the governor signed a fiscally responsible budget.

“Our governor ran first and foremost on fiscal responsibility, something so severely lacking over the last eight years that it devastated our state,” Sawyer said.

Regardless of the outcome of the veto fights, the state’s budget situation is dramatically better than it was a few years ago, when tax revenue consistently fell short of expectations.

But without future changes, the state’s surplus revenue is projected to decline over the next few years. One veto fight expected Wednesday would affect how much surplus revenue Kansas has in the coming year.

Kelly vetoed legislation designed to hold down corporate tax bills and allow Kansas residents to itemize their state income taxes even if they don’t itemize on their federal taxes. The measure also contains a formula to lower the tax rate on food using increased revenues from internet sales.

Kansas would forgo about $90 million in revenue under the plan in the coming year, according to state projections.

Kelly said tax policy shouldn’t be shaped by a “rushed attempt to achieve an immediate political victory.” House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, called the bill a commonsense tax relief plan.

The governor vetoed a similar tax bill earlier this year. Republicans didn’t attempt to override her after it became apparent they didn’t have enough votes.

But the second bill has more support. It passed the Legislature a single vote short of a veto-proof majority.

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