Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and the rest of the GOP congressional delegation are criticizing Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly for not devoting federal resources to upgrading the outdated computer system at the state Labor Department.
In a letter sent to the governor Friday, the Republicans questioned the governor for not using a share of federal coronavirus relief money to upgrade a computer system that’s been blamed on the state’s inability to respond to a flood of unemployment claims.
“While the federal government was able to quickly provide guidelines and deliver funding to state governments, Kansas remained far behind in processing the unemployment benefits to bank accounts,” the letter said.
“Kansas, like several other states, was utilizing systems that had not been updated in years and, consequently, was under-equipped to handle the large amounts of processing associated with the CARES Act unemployment benefits,” the letter stated.
“Using a portion of the (coronavirus relief fund) to modernize outdated unemployment processing systems in order to efficiently handle the significant influx of federal unemployment benefits clearly fits within the congressional intent of being a necessary expenditure,” they said.
Moran, along with U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall and U.S. Reps. Jake LaTurner, Ron Estes and Tracey Mann, said in their letter that the states were given the flexibility to decide how to spend their relief money.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. and Senate President Ty Masterson signed onto the letter, as well.
Kelly’s office turned responsibility for upgrading the system on Republican congressional leaders.
“The most important issue facing the Kansas Department of Labor is modernizing its outdated IT systems,” the governor’s office said in a statememt.
“It’s disappointing that the majority of the Kansas congressional delegation has decided against supporting the governor’s efforts to address this in the federal stimulus package.”
The letter comes days after Kelly joined with Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to ask congressional leadership to include money in the latest coronavirus relief package for money to modernize state labor department computer systems.
“We have reached a point of crisis with the technology used by states to administer the country’s unemployment insurance system,” said the letter from Kelly and the two Democratic governors.
“These legacy systems still utilized by a majority of states have hindered their response to unemployment insurance claimants and unnecessarily exposed the states to sophisticated criminal enterprises that have sought to defraud state and federal unemployment benefits programs,” they said.
The letter from the Democratic governors was sent to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Moran and the Republican leaders said the governor was casting a “false narrative” that more federal funding would solve the state’s problems at the Labor Department.
They said a House Oversight Committee report released on Feb. 12 showed that Kansas still had $218 million unspent from the coronavirus relief packages passed last year.
They said they have referred many calls to the state Labor Department in recent months.
“We are very concerned to hear your office has ignored many unemployment benefit referrals sent over by our offices,” the said.
“In addition, Kansans referred to the new (Labor Department) assistance email address have not been receiving calls back within a week, as promised.
“Instead, they are being sent emails directing them to call centers where no one is answering the phones,” they wrote.
Kelly has blamed former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback for failing to follow through on modernization efforts a decade ago, leading to the problems plaguing the state Labor Department’s computer system now.
Kelly, who is seeking $37.5 million from the Legislature for computer upgrades, addressed the issue at a news briefing this week.
“Over the last decade, the Kansas Department of Labor has been underfunded and undersupported,” Kelly said earlier this week.
“This was by design,” Kelly said. “There was a desire to reduce the number of unemployment benefits that would actually be paid out.
“The modernization process, which had begun in 2009, was abruptly ended by the Bownback/Colyer administration in 2011, a prelude to other devastating cuts that would follow to fill the craters created by that tax experiment of 2012,” she said.
Kansas House and Senate Democratic leadership joined Kelly in her request to congressional leadership for modernization money as well.