Senate President Ty Masterson leads discussion Wednesday on a resolution urging an end to federal unemployment aid. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Republicans in the Senate and House punctuated the close of the 2021 legislative session Wednesday by asking Gov. Laura Kelly to cut off federal support for out-of-work Kansans and failing to override the governor’s veto of a short-term insurance bill.
Lawmakers returned to the Statehouse for a largely ceremonial one-day close to the session. Legislative leaders declined to attempt an override of the governor’s vetoes on a $500 million pandemic relief fund for businesses or funding for a controversial COVID-19 research project.
Senate President Ty Masterson led the charge in his chamber to end federal unemployment aid, referring to the boost of $300 per week to state payments as a “perverse incentive” that prevents Kansans from returning to employers who need workers.
In a duel of fast-food anecdotes, Masterson said he was surprised Wednesday morning when he went to McDonalds and saw a sign offering a signing bonus for new employees. Sen. Tom Holland, a Democrat from Baldwin City, pointed to the state’s unemployment rate — lower now than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic — and referenced an old Wendy’s commercial: “Where’s the beef?”
Masterson said “the beef” is hanging in the windows of businesses in the form of “help wanted” signs.
“We’re using tax dollars to compete with jobs,” Masterson said.
The resolution notes that 23 other states already have shut off federal unemployment aid.
Sen. Jeff Pittman, D-Leavenworth, said 46 other states have legalized medical marijuana, “but we didn’t jump on that bandwagon, did we?”
The Senate passed the resolution by a 27-11 party line vote, and the House followed with a 79-38 vote. The resolution sends a message to the governor but carries no authority to force a change. As it stands, the federal unemployment aid is set to expire in September.
“If you don’t have a job, it’s because you’re not looking,” said Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said the call to remove enhanced unemployment benefits is irresponsible and undermines the state’s economic recovery.
“There is a clear double-standard,” Sawyer said. “Republicans are OK giving multinational corporations hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks and federal dollars, but when it comes to ordinary Kansans, they pile on the burdens.”
Sen. Ethan Corson, a Prairie Village Democrat, led a chorus of Democrats who complained “junk” health insurance plans offer no protections for pre-existing conditions and carry other risks.
Senate Bill 29 would have expanded the duration of short-term plans, which bypass regulations because they were designed as stopgap measures, from one year to three years.
Corson said the only people who favor the plan were insurance agents, angering several Republicans who sell insurance. The GOP supporters said the bill will help give Kansans more choices about the best plan for them.
The Senate endorsed an override of the governor’s veto by a 28-11 vote, but the House fell shy of the two-thirds majority required to complete the override. The House vote was 67-48.
In a meeting of Senate Republicans earlier in the day, Masterson told his caucus they lacked the votes to override the governor’s other vetoes. Instead, he said, they would make Kelly “own” the veto of a bill that would have created a $500 million fund to issue closed-door payments to businesses.
The bill would have required local and state governments to set aside a portion of federal pandemic recovery dollars, and authorized payments for businesses impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.
Masterson also advised his caucus it would look bad to try to give the University of Kansas money it doesn’t want for research using stem cells to search for a treatment of severe COVID-19 cases.
Action in the House began with Rep. Elizabeth Bishop, a Wichita Democrat, announcing her retirement. Bishop served the 88th district in southwest Wichita since 2017, when she flipped a previously Republican district.
Bishop served on the House Health and Human Services Committee and was an advocate for improving mental health in Kansas. Bishop said one of her chief disappointments was the failure of the Legislature to expand Medicaid health insurance coverage to more low-income families.
“Hope spring eternal. I have hope that we as a state will accomplish that in the not too distant future,” Bishop said before turning to legislative progress.
“These legislative steps chart progress toward making mental health and addiction treatment more accessible and more effective for the many Kansans who so desperately need it,” Bishop said.
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