Kansas racial justice panel turns focus to equitable distribution of federal aid

As Kansas prepares to dole out nearly $1.6 billion in federal pandemic relief funds, the Kansas Commission on Racial Equity and Justice has turned its attention to ensuring these funds are used equitably and provide relief to the state’s vulnerable communities. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — As Kansas is set to receive about $1.6 billion in discretionary pandemic relief aid from the federal government, a state equity panel wants to ensure minority and at-risk communities have a seat at the table when deciding how to dole those funds out.

The Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice subcommittee on economics met Thursday to discuss an influx of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and how they could be beneficial in addressing some of the group’s goals.

A common point of emphasis for commission members was ensuring these funds are made available equitably. The flow of cash from last year’s CARES Act was stifled by bureaucratic roadblocks, said Shannon Portillo, co-chairwoman of the commission.

“A recommendation really should be focusing at the state, county and city level on ensuring that we have the lowest administrative burden possible for communities accessing funding and assistance,” Portillo said in discussion over potential suggestions from the commission regarding the new funds. “I wonder if we should have a recommendation that just says we want to ensure that cities and counties, as well as state agencies, and the SPARK Committee for the state overall considers the perspectives of people of color.”

The group focused on issues of racial justice in Kansas is set to submit a midyear report later this month or in early July, followed by a final report in December. The panel was established one year ago after the murder of George Floyd and calls for criminal justice and racial equity policy reforms.

The commission is focused this year on the social determinants of health — education, health care, economics — after spending the first six months focused on policing policies. As the commission broadens its scope, it is also making room for recommendations to ensure new federal aid is used equitably.

While many of the policies enacted in the American Rescue Plan are on a short-term basis, these programs could serve pivotal roles in addressing racial equity gaps on a national level, said Nicole Bennett and Kelcie Abraham, both from the Boston Consulting Group.

They pointed to the payouts of $1,400, a 15% increase of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits until Sept. 30, a child tax credit and the extension of an unemployment boost all show promising results at addressing divides. Bennett said the four policies combined show more than 40% improvement in the Black and Latino poverty levels and more than 50% in child poverty rates.

“We hope to see some big changes over the next year that can be pushed, that can make a case and demonstrate impact,” Bennett said of the possibility these measures could be adopted long term.

Kansas secretary of Administration DeAngela Burns-Wallace, also a member of the commission, offered insight to the economics subcommittee on where non-discretionary funds would be headed that could help equity issues.

One of the largest allocations of funds will be $153 million to the state’s emergency rental assistance program. After the Kansas Legislative Coordinating Council voted to end Kansas’ ban on evictions, housing was of concern to commissioner John Nave, a former Topeka city council member.

Among several other programs benefiting from federal aid is the small businesses credit initiative, which is set to receive $56 million, as well as $20 million for SNAP and $56 million for the homeowners assistance program.

Burns-Wallace said updates about the new SPARK task force members and plans would be made available in the coming weeks.

“That SPARK process will have a little bit of length to it again because we have time to be strategic,” Burns-Wallace said. “There could be opportunities to continue to bring voices as we learn more about these dollars, how they can be used, that I think that there’ll be more opportunities for us all to engage.”