Kelly, Kansas legislators earmark up to $95 million for COVID-19 testing

Council pumps $80 million in pipeline, places $15 million in reserve

Gov. Laura Kelly and legislators on the State Finance Council agreed Thursday in a virtual meeting to increase spending on COVID-19 testing to $80 million and earmark an additional $15 million for testing depending on demand statewide. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Gov. Laura Kelly and legislators on the State Finance Council agreed Thursday in a virtual meeting to increase spending on COVID-19 testing to $80 million and earmark an additional $15 million for testing depending on demand statewide. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The bipartisan council comprised of Kansas legislators and Gov. Laura Kelly voted Thursday to reallocate $30 million from a federal CARES Act reserve account to improve COVID-19 testing capacity throughout Kansas.

The allocation adopted by the State Finance Council elevated to $80 million investment in testing of Kansans during the pandemic. In addition, the council unanimously agreed to allow the governor’s coronavirus relief task force to dedicate $15 million more for testing if warranted by evolution of the virus.

The vote by Republican and Democratic political leaders recognized escalation in the number of people contracting the virus, especially in some rural areas of Kansas, and the challenge posed by higher rates of hospitalization and fatalities. There is consensus Kansas needs a comprehensive testing program that covers more of the population and produces results within 48 hours.

Julie Lorenz, who is responsible for coordinating expenditure of nearly $1 billion in federal COVID-19 aid, urged the State Finance Council to spend $80 million on a broadened testing program. She concurred with a proposal to set aside $15 million more for testing. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Julie Lorenz, who is responsible for coordinating expenditure of nearly $1 billion in federal COVID-19 aid, urged the State Finance Council to spend $80 million on a broadened testing program. She concurred with a proposal to set aside $15 million more for testing. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Department of Transportation secretary Julie Lorenz, who is serving as the Kelly administration’s coordinator of CARES Act funding, asked the council to release $30 million for the new unified testing initiative. The money will be added to previous $50 million allocation for testing, she said.

“I don’t want to ask for more money than we need to or could use,” she said. “Today, we want to get the $80 million underway. If we need more money, we will ask for it.”

However, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, convinced the State Finance Council to go ahead with a plan to hold in reserve $15 million more for coronavirus testing. The governor’s task force, known as SPARK or Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas, would have authority to draw down the supplemental testing funding.

“Allow them to have access to $15 million,” Denning said. “If they need it, fine. I’d rather do it now than later.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, Olathe Republican, said he supported the $15 million earmark for testing as long as the maneuver didn’t undermine aid for frontline hospital and health workers struggling with child care expenses.

If SPARK took the $15 million out of the state’s COVID-19 child supervision fund, Denning said, the account would still have $18 million available to assist essential employees with expenditures for child care.

In addition, the State Finance Council agreed to use an additional $20 million for grants to small businesses undermined by the pandemic. About $35 million CARES Act aid has been awarded to Kansas business.

Lorenz said financial flexibility would be necessary to complete full delivery of the $1 billion in federal COVID-19 assistance by the Jan. 1 deadline.

“Balance is so important,” she said. “We’re trying to get the most benefit that we can out of these dollars and provide flexibility and minimize any risk of being noncompliant. I want to emphasize that we have a strong oversight process in place.”