TOPEKA — The six Republicans on the State Finance Council derailed Thursday a recommendation from Gov. Laura Kelly to seek $400 weekly in supplemental unemployment insurance for people out of work due to COVID-19.
Kelly and the two Democrats on the council supported the request for $100 per week in aid from the state to go with $300 in weekly benefits through a federal program established by President Donald Trump.
The governor, who previously raised red flags about the Trump’s unemployment initiative, said the Kansas Department of Labor would submit an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to secure the $300 in weekly unemployment assistance. If approved by FEMA, checks could start flowing to out-of-work Kansans in late September.
More than 40 states have opted for only the federal portion of the Trump program rather than invest money in state hands to push the total to $400 each week.
“My administration is committed to using whatever tools are available to help Kansans,” Kelly said. “I’m disappointed that Republican leaders on the State Finance Council continue to play politics during a public health crisis, instead of supporting the plan that was introduced by President Trump.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said the estimated $63 million in CARES Act funding that would have been used to cover the state’s portion of the supplemental jobless benefit should be set aside for other uses. He proposed it be spent to dramatically increase coronavirus testing or to create a program to help working parents pay for child care.
Denning said tripling the number of COVID-19 tests performed each day in Kansas would likely reduce the percentage testing positive to less than 5% and assure K-12 schools could remain in operation. The current positivity rate in Kansas is close to 10%, but that figure is influenced by testing at COVID-19 cluster sites by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
“We have an urgent needs to get K-12 open and to get businesses stabilized,” Denning said.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, the Olathe Republican, said cash that would have been used for the $100 weekly increase in jobless benefits would be better spent strengthening the state’s unemployment trust fund. At the start of the pandemic, there was more than $900 million in the trust fund. It’s sitting at $605 million and could run dry by the end of 2020.
“House Republicans are focused on ensuring our unemployment system is solvent for the duration of the crisis,” said Ryckman, who referred to the Democratic governor’s preference as a Band-Aid. “Kansans who have lost a job deserve stability and security right now.”
Last week, 30,491 Kansans filed initial or continued claims for unemployment benefits in the counties represented by the six Republican members of the State Finance Council who objected to the extra $100 in weekly assistance. In those counties, 196,870 Kansans have filed initial claims for unemployment since the first week of March. More than 6,000 filed initial claims in those districts last week.
“Labor Day is next Monday,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. “We should recognize unemployed Kansans need our help.”
Ryan Wright, acting secretary of the state Department of Labor, said an estimated 76,000 to 93,000 people could benefit from the additional unemployment aid. The assistance is to be retroactive to Aug. 1. He also estimated 31,000 Kansans could be expected to exhaust their traditional unemployment benefits within the next eight weeks, a period in which the Trump bonus money could be available.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, accused the Department of Labor with being victimized by a “tremendous breach” of private information to criminals trying to steal unemployment benefits.
“We have a problem going on in your department,” Wagle said. “Maybe it’s happening all over the nation.”
Wright said attempts at identity theft were pervasive, but assured Wagle and others on the council there had been no data breach at the labor department.
Mike Kuckelman, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said the Kelly administration should be faulted for sitting idly for nearly a month while most other states applied for and received permission to allocate the unemployment benefits authorized by Trump. It’s part of the governor’s “haphazard response to this pandemic,” he said.
“Only four states have determined the need for using an additional $100 per week in CARES Act funding for unemployment benefits,” he said. “Republicans on the finance council were right to join the vast majority of states across the country in determining those funds will be better used for other priorities as we continue to fight the invisible enemy that is this virus.”
Vicki Hiatt, chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party, said Republican legislative leaders were neglecting to properly recognize “Kansans reeling from the unprecedented economic consequences” of the pandemic.
“Hardworking Kansans are sick and tired of politicians turning their backs on us when it matters most,” Hiatt said.