Lawmakers take up more COVID relief spending

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Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration on Wednesday proposed a little more than $60 million in federal COVID-19 relief spending, including money for a vaccine lottery, increased Labor Department staffing and small townships.

DeAngela Burns-Wallace, secretary of the Department of Administration, laid out a spending plan from the federal COVID relief money approved by Congress in March 2020 and the most recent round of money approved earlier this year.

The plan was presented to the executive committee of a special task force that the governor created to guide how the money is spent. The plan included:

  • Spending $1.3 million for the state to start a lottery to encourage vaccines. The lottery would be open to anyone 24 and younger who received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Winners would get scholarships to public and private schools in Kansas as well as community colleges. About 14 states are holding similar lotteries.
  • Spending up to $20 million for townships that were previously excluded from federal COVID relief funding. There are more than 1,800 townships in Kansas.
  • Spending $22 million to increase staffing at the Kansas Department of Labor, which has been under siege as it struggled to deal with a flood of claims during the pandemic.
  • Spending $21.5 million to operate the state’s recovery office, which oversees billions of dollars in federal relief money coming into the state. About $1.9 million is sought for fiscal year 2021 ending next week and $20 million for fiscal year 2022.

Burns-Wallace presented the spending proposal to the committee, which the Legislature reconstituted this year to give lawmakers more say in how the money is spent.

The committee will help decide how $1.6 billion in federal COVID relief money coming into the state will be doled out.

Burns-Wallace laid out an early proposal with an eye toward getting approval from the state Finance Council when it meets on Thursday.

But the proposals were slowed down by lawmakers who were concerned that they hadn’t had enough time to review the proposals and wanted more details and data.

“I don’t even know what questions to ask right now because I don’t even know what I’m looking at,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. said during the meeting.

Senate President Ty Masterson said members of the committee received the information about the proposals on Tuesday night, less than 24 hours before the executive committee of the task force was scheduled to meet.

“I don’t want to fault anybody on that,” Masterson said. “My anticipation was we were going to start meeting in July and August then all of sudden, boom here it is.”

Masterson said questions about the proposal were driven more by first seeing them rather than serious concerns about what was proposed.

“Saying ‘yes’ now to this is saying ‘no’ to something else later and we don’t know what’s all on the table,” he said.

Masterson and Ryckman both raised questions about the proposal to use $1.3 million for the vaccine lottery, saying they didn’t think it was the best use of the money.

“At first blush, just looking at it, I’m not saying it’s not a good idea, but right now I don’t see a rationale for it when you’re balancing out the rest of the priorities we have,” Ryckman said.

“I think it’s a personal decision. I think folks should be vaccinated, but that’s their decision,” he said.

Masterson shared a similar view, questioning whether more could be done for the same amount of money.

“I don’t think we should be bribing people to take the vaccine,” Masterson said an interview after the meeting.

“They’re readily available and if people want them, they can get them,” he said

Lt. Gov. David Toland, who chairs the executive committee, agreed that more details about the spending proposals were needed.

“We need some more data. We need more information. We need it in enough time to be digested,” Toland said.

“And that’s what we’re going to come back with on this and other items.”

Masterson also pressed Burns-Wallace on how the Labor Department money would be spent, asking whether it would be used to support the expanded unemployment benefits that Republicans want ended in Kansas.

He noted that the House and the Senate overwhelming passed resolutions calling for the governor to end the expanded unemployment benefit.

“Is this to support efforts in sustaining the expansion,” he asked.

Burns-Wallace and a top Labor Department official said the money would go toward operations at the agency.

Deputy Labor Secretary Peter Brady said regardless of when the expanded unemployment benefits end, there are still operating demands.

“There are still a lot of operational needs in the agency that will need to be met to pay people, to investigate fraud, to make (benefit) determinations, to hear appeals,” Brady said.

“Regardless of what happened with that program,” Brady said alluding to the expanded benefits, “this operational support would be needed.”

Ryckman questioned the timing of deciding on the request, wanting more information about where and how the money would be used.

“It’s not that I’m against any of this, it’s such little information and it’s such a short amount of time to make a $22 million decision,” he said.

Ryckman said it was too early to rush into making any decisions about the spending proposals presented on Wednesday.

The committee did support putting money into the recovery office for 2021 and half of what was requested for 2022.

“We’re making million-dollar decisions on taxpayer money and we owe it to the citizens to ask the questions and get the supporting documents before we spend their money,” Ryckman said after the meeting.

“We need to look at where we want to end up and what do we want to do with these funds,” he said. “We have a tremendous opportunity and burden when you look at spending $1.6 billion in taxpayer money.

“We need to be sure we use that correctly to invest in our state.”