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Gov. Kelly plays politics with federal unemployment relief

Gov. Kelly announced last week that she won’t consider temporary federal unemployment relief as stalled congressional COVID negotiations. In response to President Trump issuing his own executive orders, the Governor’s announced her own executive action on COVID and her changing COVID  economic response. Such actions strongly suggest she’d rather paper over the faults of her administration than to give funds directly to Kansans.

On August 8th, the President signed an executive memorandum for federal unemployment relief. The President’s memo would extend unemployment relief, at $400 per week (initial relief package was $600/week), for roughly five months. The plan redirects $44 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Act (FEMA) under the Stafford Act as a lost wages assistance program. State governors must then cover 25% of the cost ($100/week) and can use their CARES funding to finance it. As of August 24th, 19 states are approved for this funding, including Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, and Oklahoma.

There are legitimate questions as to whether the President has authority for such an action and whether it’s good policy. Our concerns are no different from our issues of Governor Kelly’s use of the executive office as well. However, we note Governor Kelly’s reluctance to provide Kansans relief, is not based on federalism or some principled argument.

Excuse #1: Gov. Kelly does not want to spend CARES dollars on federal unemployment relief

In response to more federal unemployment relief, Governor Kelly says Kansas has limited resources to follow through.

If we divert those resources to try and implement a plan that may not be permanent and may not even be legal, it could ultimately prevent Kansans receiving those benefits in a timely manner when a more permanent solution is just around the corner if Congress acts

However, that is not entirely true. According to the Kansas Office of Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) taskforce, the state has $290 million of unallocated CARES funding. As per the June Kansas jobs report, the state has 113,134 unemployed Kansans. The state’s estimate for extending federal unemployment relief costs a fifth of their unused COVID relief package.

Excuse #2: Kelly never made a funding request to fix Kansas’ U.I. mainframe

Additionally, the Kansas Department of Labor (KDOL) Acting Secretary admitted the agency risks repeating its prior delays in getting relief to Kansans.

As we evaluate this memo, we must also take into account that we are dealing with legacy I.T. systems and limited resources

Such limited resources, however, are a product of the Kelly administration’s inability to handle the crisis. In 2019, Governor Kelly made no recommendation to the legislature to fund an update to the agency’s I.T. system. Additionally, during COVID-19, Gov. Kelly stated she was again hamstrung by KDOL’s outdated U.I. Mainframe. Yet, her administration never made a funding request to upgrade it for the 2020 or 2021 fiscal year.

Excuse #3: Kansas Department of Labor can’t handle more federal unemployment relief

With no funding and under a statewide shutdown of businesses, the Kansas Department of Labor took weeks to get the $600/week relief payment to working Kansans. Additionally, it took two months to process and send out relief payments to small business owners. The agency also paid unemployment benefits to ineligible Kansans and withdrew the funds without notice, causing overdraft fees and more financial hardships. To this day, Kansas has roughly 25,000 claims still in the backlog.

Governor Kelly has yet to grow or promote jobs as an alternative

Governor Kelly does not have to accept the federal unemployment relief package.  With COVID statistics trending in the right direction, Governor Kelly has yet to encourage Kansans to return to work. A prudent, safe return to work means a lessened financial burden on state social safety net systems. There’s no better example than in South Dakota. Governor Kristi Noem has declined the President’s unemployment plan.

My administration is very grateful for the additional flexibility that this effort would have provided, but South Dakota is in the fortunate position of not needing to accept it. South Dakota’s economy, having never been shut down, has recovered nearly 80% of our job losses

Contrast that with Kansas, where the state’s private sector has recovered about 56% of its March and April job losses. Additionally, the Mount Rushmore state has 86% fewer residents seeking unemployment compared to their April levels. Kansas unemployed is only 67% lower than its peak in April. Coupled with the sluggish job recovery, Gov. Kelly’s executive order interfering with property contracts will only exacerbate the economic depression.

If the governor truly wished to help unemployed Kansans, there are many solutions available. The best way to help is by growing and promoting jobs. Enacting the President’s directive, while not ideal, does provide a path for financial relief. The fact that Governor Kelly isn’t considering either option strongly suggests this isn’t about policy. Instead, it’s an attempt to siphon federal funds though her spending plans instead of simply providing relief directly to Kansans.