TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a budget provision putting a maximum of 14 legislators in control of allocating as much as $1.6 billion in new federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funding.
The governor, by design of House and Senate Republicans, would be left out of the loop because they’re convinced she seized too much influence over previous federal relief aid and other emergency actions as coronavirus took hold last year. From the perspective of the Kansas House on Monday, the final answer for the governor was to vote to override her veto. It’s up to the Kansas Senate to complete the override, which is highly likely.
“The final authority will come to the Legislature,” said Rep. Troy Waymaster, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “There needs to be more oversight in regards to the federal money that’s coming into the state. We have ample time to analyze and actually make better decisions on how that money is to be spent.”
He said Kelly took control of a state task force in 2020 that included political and business leaders working to help coordinate expenditure of emergency funding from Congress. Task force recommendations were sent to the State Finance Council, which was chaired by the governor and included eight legislative leaders.
If the Senate produces the two-thirds majority to affirm the veto override, the Democratic governor would be included in the emergency aid appropriations process as a courtesy. The task force would be replaced by the Legislative Budget Committee, comprised of three House and three Senate members and led by Republicans. That committee would forward all COVID-19 spending plans to the Legislative Coordinating Council, which has been expanded to eight legislators so the GOP holds a 6-2 majority. Kelly doesn’t have a seat on the LCC.
Kelly tried to persuade the House and Senate to preserve the status quo. She argued federal funds would be handled by an experienced management team “with a full understanding of the relevant federal requirements and limitations while receiving input from the private sector through a transparent process.”
“Changing this now will create confusion and slow down the ability to make meaningful investments critical to our economic recovery,” Kelly said.
The House didn’t buy her argument and voted 86-38 to override her veto on COVID-19 aid oversight.
“Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, I can’t imagine that anyone would think it’s appropriate to cut out the sitting governor of a state from any say in how these funds are spent,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas.
Rep. Henry Helgerson, a Wichita Democrat, said the bill set up a potential tug-of-owar between the legislative and executive branches regarding allocation of federal dollars essential to bailing out the state and putting Kansas on a road to economic recovery.
“I understand people are unhappy with the governor. I want to make sure we don’t screw up this $1.6 billion,” Helgerson said.
Meanwhile, the House also voted Monday to override three other line-item vetoes by Kelly that have yet to be taken up by the Senate. That meant more than a dozen budget-related vetoes by Kelly would stand.
The House struggled before successfully passing a motion overriding Kelly’s rejection of a $10.3 million earmark for deferred building maintenance at higher education institutions in the Kansas Board of Regents system. The cash was included in the governor’s proposed budget and was available to support a 2.5% salary increase at universities, but the House and Senate preferred the idea of devoting the money to a backlog of building repair.
“Although investments to address infrastructure issues are critically important,” Kelly said, “this specific state appropriation should be included with pay increases for state employees as intended. The Kansas Board of Regents should utilize federal funds to pay for deferred maintenance.”
The House also voted to reverse the veto of $300,000 for a pilot program at Hope Ranch for Women. It’s an Andover facility that strives to help abused or exploited women. The ranch’s marketing suggests “through the power of Jesus Christ, these survivors can become whole in mind, body and soul.”
Rep. Will Carpenter, an El Dorado Republican, said the investment by taxpayers was justified because the ranch offered an opportunity for women to escape evils of human trafficking.
“The future is now and these women need help,” Carpenter said.
The final budget override motion approved by the House was tied to the amount of income an elderly person in the state’s inclusive care program could retain monthly while contributing other income to reimburse Medicaid. Under current law signed by Kelly in 2019, the level of protected income stands at $1,177 per month. The adjustment sought by the Legislature would raise the amount of income protected to $2,300 per month.