The elections that will be held on November 6th promise to be some of the most significant in recent years. All 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are up for election, as well as 35 U.S. Senate seats and 36 governor’s mansions. Additionally, numerous state legislative seats and many local races will be on the ballot. Today we continue a three-part series examining some of the gubernatorial elections in November and how the outcome of those elections could affect public pensions in those states. We began last week with Oregon and Iowa and we continue today with Kansas and Colorado.
During the past decade, Kansas has been the home of major political fights over tax policy and public pensions. Former Governor Sam Brownback pushed through massive tax cuts during his first term as governor, which devastated the state’s revenue and created gaping holes in the state’s budget. After years of slashing spending to the bone, a bipartisan majority of state legislators overturned Brownback’s tax cuts and ended his disastrous experiment with tax policy.
With the state once again earning sufficient revenue to fund public policy priorities, the state made a full contribution to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System (KPERS) this year. During the Brownback administration, the state had skipped and deferred its payments to KPERS multiple times. Additionally, during 2012, Brownback supported changing KPERS from a defined benefit pension system to a cash balance plan.
This year’s gubernatorial election will be contested among Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Democratic State Senator Laura Kelly, and independent businessman Greg Orman, who was a major candidate for U.S. Senate in 2014. Kobach defeated the incumbent governor, Jeff Colyer, who succeeded Brownback, in the Republican primary. If Kobach wins the gubernatorial election, KPERS would be threatened once again. Kobach supports returning to the failed Brownback tax cuts. The resulting blow to state revenues would imperil KPERS funding, just as it did before.
Public pensions are a major issue in the Colorado gubernatorial election. The contest there is between Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis. Stapleton has made opposition to PERA, Colorado’s statewide public pension system, a signature issue of his campaign. He promotes radical changes to PERA that would shift the burden onto working families. He also wants to force more public employees into a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan, which would be particularly harmful in a state where most public employees do not participate in Social Security.
Stapleton’s rhetoric on PERA does not match reality, though. He claimed that that he personally attends “about 90 percent of the [PERA] meetings, or even more.” That’s just not true. An examination of PERA board meeting attendance records revealed that Stapleton attended just 53 percent of those meetings. Secure PERA, a coalition of public employees working to protect retirement security for working families in Colorado, created this video to expose Stapleton’s lies about his attendance. It’s hard to imagine that PERA is as high of a priority for Stapleton as he claims if he only shows up to half the meetings!
We will continue this series later this week with profiles of more gubernatorial elections with implications for public pensions. In the meantime, you can find information about voting in your state via Nonprofit VOTE. Your vote matters in this election and every election. When you vote, be sure to vote for candidates who support public pensions and retirement security for working families.