As Kansas seeks company for unemployment overhaul, questions asked of council’s role in decision

By: - July 27, 2021 5:03 pm

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes wonders if the state’s unemployment modernization council was “not staying in their lane.” (May 28, 2021, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — An update on work done by the Kansas council tasked with modernizing the state’s beleaguered unemployment system is raising questions from one legislator of the role that panel should play in the search for a company to oversee the process.

The Unemployment Compensation, Modernization and Improvement Council, chaired by Rep. Sean Tarwater, is supposed to provide recommendations on what the future unemployment insurance IT system should look like. House Bill 2196, which took effect May 13 and created the council, required a report to the Legislative Coordinating Council within 60 days. Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican, had hoped the report would include a recommended vendor.

Tarwater said that proved difficult because of a narrowly written and lengthy request for proposal, or RFP, from the Kansas Department of Labor. The RFP is a document that announces details of the project and solicits bids from companies.

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, said the council had done well to make recommendations on improvements but may be overstepping their legislative authority in recommending the appropriate vendor.

“I would say that the council is supposed to examine and recommend changes, not specific companies doing this,” Sykes said. “I’m a little concerned that maybe the council is not staying in their lane with what they’re supposed to be doing in this process.”

An influx of unemployment claims due to COVID-19 and a rash of fraudulent claims in the past year caused lawmakers to address the failing system after years spent contemplating action without any real effort. Now, Kansas stakeholders must weigh the best way to go about what is expected to be a multi-year process.

Aside from discussion on the vendor, Tarwater also presented additional recommendations on how the modernization council thought the system could best be improved. The council suggested IT modernization should be done gradually, rather than all at once, and that an “off-the-shelf” coding program be implemented, rather than Kansas building its own.

In April, KDOL released a 200-page RFP, signaling the department’s intent to move forward with the process. A month later, HB2196 placed oversight of the process in the hands of the modernization council.

One barrier to recommending a company is that the modernization panel has yet to hear from the companies that responded to the RFP, Tarwater said. He noted that the procurement council has narrowed it down to two companies, and he expected presentations from them in the future.

Ultimately, the RFP is the responsibility of KDOL, but Tarwater said he and many council members found the request to be unsatisfactory.

“We feel it would cost the state valuable time in modernizing the unemployment system,” Tarwater said. “A substandard request for proposal could result in a substandard system, costing the state even more time and money if the inadequacies are not addressed.”

Tarwater added that the length of the RFP makes it difficult for a company to adequately respond. He pointed to New Jersey and Wisconsin — two states that recently released unemployment modernization RFPs — as examples of well-done requests, both under 20 pages.

After a short back and forth between Sykes and Tarwater, Senate President Ty Masterson adjourned the meeting, saying these concerns could be addressed when the council meets to take concrete action on the presentation.

“It feels like we’re getting a little off track,” Masterson said. “I understand I’m hearing the concerns, but the purpose of this meeting is to just receive the report.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.