House Speaker Ron Ryckman, left, and House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins will retain their leadership positions in the House for the 2021 session, while Senate Republicans elected Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, to be Senate president. (Nick Krug/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly and a bipartisan majority of the State Finance Council voted Monday to allocate $60 million in federal COVID-19 aid to expansion of broadband in underserved areas of Kansas for benefit of business, telemedicine and education services.
Kansas Department of Commerce secretary David Toland said high-speed internet had to be viewed as an essential expenditure rather than a luxury investment because of inadequacies exposed during the pandemic. He urged the council to authorize the spending by arguing action at this time on rural broadband was akin to rural electrification programs in the 1930s.
“It’s critical if we are to grow as a state,” Toland said. “It’s simply a matter of practicality and common sense.”
The plan adopted by the council earmarked $50 million to create more communication infrastructure and applied $10 million to support of connectivity in low-income homes. The money must be spent by the end of 2020 with priority given to shovel-ready projects and an emphasis on telehealth services. The broadband initiative had been temporarily blocked after several Republicans said they didn’t believe the Kelly administration had yet developed a workable plan.
“The $60 million we’re looking at today is not going to be enough,” said Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican. “Obviously, to have this implemented through the entire state of Kansas is going to cost more.”
Kelly said she agreed available funding wouldn’t address requirements for linking students to schools, sick people to medical clinics and business owners to customers worldwide. She said a third phase of spending from federal CARES Act appropriations could provide a supplemental layer of aid for broadband.
“Plus we’re still waiting with bated breath to see what the feds do,” the governor said. “Hopefully, we will be able to increase this amount significantly going forward.”
A majority of Republicans and Democrats on the council approved a proposal from the Kelly administration to spend up to $5 million to hire an accounting firm capable of tracking $1 billion in CARES Act funding distributed by the state amid the pandemic. Kelly said it would have been difficult for the state to promptly hire a sufficient number of highly skilled personnel for an accounting and compliance job ending in less than five months.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, said she wasn’t convinced $5 million was required to provide transparency and accountability of COVID-19 expenditures.
“This seems an excessive amount of money,” Wagle said. “Did we look at trying to do this within our own Department of Administration? Five million dollars to dot the Is and cross the Ts?”
House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, was the lone vote against the broadband initiative, the accounting contract and a separate $4 million expenditure of COVID-19 funding. He did so to protest recent distribution of information about the pandemic by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He accused KDHE secretary Lee Norman of putting out a confusing chart about spread of disease in counties that adopted a mask mandate and counties that chose not to take that step.
“The chart was incredibly misleading,” said Hawkins, as he launched into a speech about about KDHE leadership.
“Representative Hawkins,” the governor said, “we are talking about agency reimbursements from the CARES Act.”
“I agree,” Hawkins replied.
“If you would like to ask a question or make a statement related to that, you are welcome to do so,” said Kelly, who chairs the State Finance Council.
Hawkins chose not to pose a question at that juncture in the meeting. During voting on the broadband aid, Hawkins said: “Due to the fact that your administration has a problem with transparency, that you have agencies that are giving out not-so-good information, and the fact that you don’t want to allow me to speak, I vote no.”
Initially, $400 million was allocated by the state to county governments to address COVID-19 expenditures and invest in recovery projects tied to the pandemic.
The State Finance Council subsequently approved $254 million for public health, education and economic development initiatives associated with COVID-19. The additional $60 million for broadband and the several other pieces of the puzzle endorsed by the council ended the second round of relief funding.
Under the third phase, the state will have approximately $290 million in federal funding. If counties can’t spend their full allotments, that money would revert to the state and could be reallocated to priority projects.
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