House, Senate members dive into unemployment, broadband shortcomings

A joint House and Senate budget committee Monday was given an update on the state's troubled unemployment system and debated the allocation of $60 million in federal CARES Act funding for broadband service improvements. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
A joint House and Senate budget committee Monday was given an update on the state's troubled unemployment system and debated the allocation of $60 million in federal CARES Act funding for broadband service improvements. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Department of Labor’s interim secretary said Monday the agency paid out $1.6 billion in the past four months to the unemployed and would make certain every person deserving of assistance during the pandemic received financial aid.

Interim secretary Ryan Wright, a member of Gov. Laura Kelly’s staff reassigned in June after ouster of secretary Delia Garcia, said the public justifiably grew frustrated with the state unemployment benefit system overwhelmed by demand as COVID-19 staggered the economy. The labor department’s computer, leadership and funding problems had positioned the state with a structure that could barely handle $50 million in benefits over any four-month period, he said.

“None of this matters if you’re trying to put food on your table or pay your rent,” he told a joint House and Senate committee of the Legislature. “We know that we can and must do better.”

He said the state’s unemployment trust fund began the pandemic with nearly $1 billion and should make it through the 2020 calendar year without borrowing from the federal government to keep the trust fund solvent. If necessary, he said, the state would be able to borrow at zero percent interest.

“Even though this looks scary to some … we’re actually in a much healthier position than a lot of other states,” Wright said.

He said extension by Congress of the supplemental $600 weekly unemployment benefit could be accommodated by the labor department with the flip of a switch. If the federal government altered that weekly amount, it could take up to two weeks to implement that adjustment. An overhaul of eligibility for this extraordinary benefit could prompt a delay of months in Kansas, he said.

“There is talk they want to do this convoluted, very complicated formula that’s based on salary,” Wright said. “If that happens, it will take us a minimum of two months to implement — if we’re able to implement it. I’m not sure we can. This is a significant concern and we are watching what happens in Congress.”

Wright also said Kansas adopted new security procedures in response to a significant spike in attempted fraud in the temporary program delivering assistance to people not eligible for regular unemployment compensation. The state is receiving about 900 of those claims each day and estimated 80 percent may be fraudulent, he said.

Meanwhile, the House-Senate committee gathered input from telecommunications industry companies and other organizations interested in expansion of broadband services to underserved areas of Kansas. The testimony at the Capitol centered on a proposal from the Kelly administration to earmark up to $60 million in federal CARES Act funding to address shortcomings in broadband networks.

There was general agreement among lawmakers the state should move ahead with the investment in internet service improvements through public-private partnerships that emphasize expansion of telehealth services. There was disagreement about a GOP proposal to keep the broadband money out of the Kansas Department of Commerce.

Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican, said he was disappointed the governor’s COVID-19 task force last week requested legislative approval of the expenditure for broadband connectivity without presenting a reasonably detailed plan for how the money would be allocated. The State Finance Council, which includes the governor and state legislators of both parties, withheld endorsement of the broadband piece pending the legislative committee hearing.

“There was no plan brought forth to the State Finance Council,” he said. “The process was slowed because it didn’t follow the proper channels.”

Broadband shortcomings have been so extensive and state funding so limited that this chance to strengthen infrastructure with coronavirus funding cannot be wasted, Waymaster said. A string of organizations made clear at the hearing that bringing high-speech internet service to all Kansans will improve health care, education and business, he said.

David Toland, secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce, said increasing access to quality broadband service was the most important economic development issue of this time. He said the challenge of delivering to communities the ingredients of connectivity, such as fiber-optic cable, isn’t new, but the issue has been given new relevance during the COVID-19 pandemic that interrupted in-person education, employment and medical care.

“High-speed internet service isn’t a luxury. It is a necessity,” Toland said. “This is not a political or partisan issue. It’s a matter of practicality and commonsense.”

He said the Kelly administration would seek to invest in public-private partnerships that supported telemedicine, distance learning and affordable delivery of services to rural or underserved regions of Kansas. There would be a cost sharing component, reflect demonstrated community needs and be entrusted to applicants capable to completing projects by the deadline in December.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.