Advocates of judicial, law enforcement, firefighter and other government retirees urged Kansas House members Monday to rally behind legislation delivering a $185 million cost-of-living adjustment to people receiving benefits from the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System.
KPERS retirees received their last COLA in 1998 and last received a one-time cash bonus in 2008. The overall cost to government employers of the proposed 1 percent to 3 percent monthly bump could jeopardize the bill assigned to the House Financial Institutions and Pensions Committee.
"There's a lot of balls up in the air right now," said Chairman Jim Kelly, a House Republican from Independence. "I wanted this to be available."
Alan Conroy, executive director of KPERS, said the legislation would apply to 80,100 retirees and beneficiaries. Approximately 300,000 employees, former employees and retirees are part of KPERS.
Conroy said the proposal in House Bill 2100 would provide a 1 percent COLA to people retired five to 10 years, a 2 percent adjustment for those retired 10 to 15 years and a 3 percent increase for individuals retired more than 15 years. He said 27,000 retirees would be eligible for the 1 percent, while 20,000 people would be eligible for the 2 percent and 33,000 for the 3 percent enhancement.
State government would be responsible for paying approximately $141 million of the proposed COLA, Conroy said. Local government employers would have to absorb the remaining $44 million for the cost-of-living adjustment, a financial reality that caught the attention of committee members.
"Cities and counties — how would they make up that?" said Rep. John Toplikar, an Olathe Republican who served about 15 years on the Johnson County Commission.
District Court Chief Judge Merlin Wheeler, who presides over cases in Lyon and Chase counties and offered a statement of support on behalf of the Kansas District Judges Association, said the bill ought to be amended to remove a provision limiting COLA benefit increases of more than $150 per month.
Rep. Tom Cox, R-Shawnee, said he was interested in possibly adding language to the bill preventing people receiving huge retirement checks from getting a COLA.
Ernie Claudel, co-chair of the Kansas Coalition of Public Retirees and a member of the KPERS board of trustees, said the cost to public employers was "reasonable and realistic." He said the Legislature hadn't approved a bonafide COLA in 22 years. The Legislature authorized 16 cost-of-living adjustments from 1971 to 1997. In the past 19 years, Claudel said, the cost of medical care had grown by 96 percent.
Rep. Virgil Weigel, D-Topeka, said he had been a recipient of KPERS' benefits since retiring from the Kansas Department of Revenue in 2011. He said authorization of a COLA was long overdue.
"I am supporting this bill simply because it is the right thing to do for KPERS retirees," said Weigel, who sponsored the bill. "The Consumer Price Index has far exceeded the 3 percent increase the bill would provide."