Governor offers rebuttal to GOP House member’s critique of Kansas unemployment aid delivery

New fraud-detection system nails 600,000 trying to gain jobless benefits

By: - February 3, 2021 6:44 pm
Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Republican from Stilwell, says state universities led students down during the COVID-19 pandemic and should pay students a 100% tuition refund for online courses and 50% tuition rebate for every day school year was shortened. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Test your knowledge of the public school debate in the Kansas Legislature by seeing if you can name this member of the House of Representatives who recently urged his colleagues to pass a bill by arguing: “This bill will not affect most of your school districts.” (Dec. 7, 2020, photo by Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly responded to comments Wednesday by a Republican House member who alleged the struggle by the Democratic administration to deliver pandemic unemployment benefits was emblematic of a fundamental lack of management accountability.

In a meeting with House colleagues at the Capitol, Stilwell Rep. Sean Tarwater expressed frustration with officials at the Kansas Department of Labor because they were unable or unwilling to answer his questions.

“They chose to hide and not take ownership and fix the issue. That’s on them,” said Tarwater, who urged the governor to expand the state’s call center capacity because people deserving of jobless aid were losing their cars and going hungry.

Kelly said during a news briefing on COVID-19 there was no escaping frustration felt by Kansans about the 40- or 45-year-old computer network at the Department of Labor that failed to keep pace with legitimate applications for assistance and grapple with the avalanche of fraudulent attempts to gain access to benefits.

Gov. Laura Kelly responded to criticism from Rep. Sean Tarwater by seeking the lawmaker's help in reforming a 2013 law that she said excessively punished Kansans for taking more unemployment benefits that qualified to receive. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, responded to criticism from Stilwell Rep. Sean Tarwater by seeking the GOP lawmaker’s assistance in reforming a 2013 law that she said excessively punished Kansans for taking more unemployment benefits that qualified to receive. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

“I’m not going to deny that it has been a tough road and that many Kansans have been frustrated by the inadequacy of the system,” the governor said. “In terms of Representative Tarwater, I appreciate the fact that he really wants this Department of Labor system to get up and running better.”

She said it would be useful if Tarwater used his leverage as chairman of the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee to reform one of the nation’s most punitive unemployment laws. The statute bans for five years in Kansas anyone mistakenly or accidently accepting jobless benefits. She said about 7,000 people had been sidelined by the law adopted in 2013. Some of these individuals didn’t know they had been tagged for receiving improper unemployment checks until losing a job in the pandemic, the governor said.

“That has created huge hardship for Kansans. So, if Representative Tarwater is sincere in wanting this to work better then I am open to working with him,” Kelly said.

In the 2020 legislative session, before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in March, the Department of Labor with Kelly’s consent introduced a House bill designed to modify the sanction. The bill would have reduced the punishment for people found to have made false statements to obtain or increase unemployment benefits if those people repaid the state for excess benefits plus penalty and interest.

The governor’s bill was shelved by Tarwater’s committee in the House — leaving Kansas out of step with the majority of states. More than 40 states impose a prohibition of one year or less, depending on repayment of the money and whether the person was a repeat offender.

During a special session of the Legislature last year, Merriam Rep. Jarrod Ousley proposed repealing the lockout law if improper benefits were repaid and sought to waive repayment penalties throughout the pandemic. The House spiked Ousley’s proposals after Tarwater denounced the ideas as a miguided attempt to reward people who ripped off the state.

This is a bad precedent to reduce it or waive it just because of a disease,” Tarwater said that time. “These people still committed a crime, and they know what the penalty was, and it’s now time to pay the price.”

Kelly said during a news briefing on COVID-19 that fraud-protection software at the Department of Labor installed over the weekend had operated well since engaged early Tuesday.

“The department has blocked more than 601,000 fraudulent login attempts since opening up yesterday morning at 7 a.m.,” Kelly said. “We know that challenges and setbacks at the Department of Labor have been hard on Kansans, but what can’t get lost in all of this is the work that our team at the Department of Labor has done.”

The governor said the labor department had processed 3.9 million claims valued at $2.6 billion during the pandemic.

Kelly also said the state reported 198,000 vaccinations for coronavirus, a figure equivalent to 7% of the state’s population. She said the state expected to receive next week 80,000 doses of vaccine, up from the recent rate of 45,000 units per week.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment said testing revealed 278,900 cases of COVID-19 since March, an increase of about 2,200 since Monday. The state’s fatality total linked to COVID-19 climbed to 3,895, up from the Monday total of 3,809.

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Tim Carpenter
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.

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