Kansas lawmakers dig into pandemic relief spending report

Auditors say the state distribution of CARES funding was appropriate

By: - September 14, 2022 2:11 pm
Sen. Mike Thompson said he was fed up with the state's distribution of federal COVID-19 relief funds during Wednesday's funding review. (Photo by Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

State Sen. Mike Thompson said he was fed up with the state’s distribution of federal COVID-19 relief funds during Wednesday’s funding review. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA Pastries, plastic tube people and festivals. Kansas lawmakers questioned whether federal COVID-19 relief funding was spent appropriately during a Wednesday review of expenditures.

The Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit’s report focused on the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress. The act included $339.8 billion in aid to state and local governments, with Kansas receiving about $1 billion in discretionary funding. 

In Kansas, CARES dollars were distributed by the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas Taskforce, an organization created by Gov. Laura Kelly.  Federal guidelines stipulated that funds had to be spent on activities or items to address COVID-19 emergency, and must have occurred from March 1, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2021. 

Several lawmakers voiced unhappiness with the funding distribution, saying money had been given out recklessly, with virtually no oversight. The task force’s decisions have been criticized, with lawmakers saying some counties have been favored over others.

Republican Sen. Mike Thompson of Johnson County said his blood pressure went up whenever he thought about the wasted dollars. 

“Just thousands  of dollars spent unnecessarily,” Thompson said. “The whole thing just makes me upset, and it makes me very concerned. I know there’s still about $1.2 billion in unspent funds from a variety of sources, I’m guessing. And I think we need a lot more oversight over where those funds go and whether they go anywhere. Because this looks like a Christmas tree for some people and there’s no accountability whatsoever.” 

Auditors at the meeting said that the state’s distribution of CARES money was appropriate and that the majority of funds were spent correctly by counties and agencies. 

The audit reviewed $18 million in CARES spending, reviewing 78 expenditures across 42 counties. The audit reported that 85% of audited expenditures were clearly allowable by federal guidelines, with counties spending the money on items such as personal protective equipment, food pantry supplies and funds to pay for COVID-19-related sick leave. 

A little less than $3 million, or 15% of audited expenditures, went to unclear expenditures. That meant the auditors didn’t see how the purchase was related to COVID-19 relief. One county spent $218,000 to install big electronic signs in each of its towns. Another county bought a plastic “tube man” to advertise its food pantry. 

Less than 1% of audit expenditures, about $48,000, was considered to be unallowable. The audit found that one county bought flu vaccines with its funding, while another spent funds on pastries and coffee for in-person meetings. 

When auditors did an additional review to determine the reasonableness of these 78 expenditures, they determined that 6%, or about $1.1 million, was ill-advised. One county spent $450,000 to create a new grocery store, which folded in months. Another grant receipt spent $20,000 to help put on a local festival, encouraging people to congregate during the pandemic. 

Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Stillwell Republican, said the audit was a good start, but he wanted more transparency about funding distribution in general. 

“My school district, for example, got $3 million, or something like that, where Wichita and Kansas City both got almost a billion. So it would be good to look into that,” he said. 

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.

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