2:20PM Nov 23, 2020
Nine months of COVID-19 is fraying nerves and twisting synapses of political leaders at all levels of Kansas government. at the Capitol in Topeka. There's anxiety among Kansas legislators to the right and left of Governor Laura Kelly. It's inspired an outpouring of partisan acrimony for good reason. The state is embroiled in economic chaos of a pandemic, relentlessly summoning, illness and death. 134,000 people have become ill and 1400 have died. This past week, a joint House and Senate Committee met in Topeka to work on how best for Kansas to claw out from this disaster. It proved to be a crucible of tit for tat commentary. First, the firecracker thoughts of a pair of Republicans. First among them is representative Sean Tarwater,
our governor shut down their businesses. Our funds are mismanaged by the administration. Our department of labor was hacked. There's rapid, rapid fraud. We're paying out these dollars way too quick. We have a failing computer system that hasn't been addressed since March.
And now senator Karen Tyson,
I can't stress strongly enough how we need the department and the administration to step up on this issue. In response, we
have a plea from Democratic Representative Tom Burrows, the fourth most senior member of the House,
I thought we were here to find a way out not to make fun and poke at one another in reference to administration's and past actions.
You can hear passion and mistrust in these voices. It reflects deep feelings about nearly every element of the state's response to the Coronavirus assault. In this edition of the Kansas reflector podcast. We're diving into some of this back and forth amongst state lawmakers vexed by COVID-19. The focus will be on their words, but we'll also add some context a bit of who what and why of this complex puzzle. First thing though, a quick summary of where we're at the pandemic through 10s of thousands out of work. exasperating computer was delayed payment of unemployment claims. There was a temporary school and business shut down family suffered. The feds handed the state 1.2 billion in emergency aid. The state's labor secretary was sacked. New unemployment benefit programs from Congress and President Donald Trump haven't been easy for states to manage. That was followed by an upswing and finger pointing as a wave of fraudulent jobless claims landed at the Kansas Department of Labor. fraud is a sore point for representative Tarwater of Stilwell. And Senator Tyson Parker, who you heard expressing disquiet about the Kelly administration's capacity to handle the crisis. In rebuttal. KC representative burrows made clear he didn't appreciate their politically charged indictments. He told his fellow committee members might seem sporting to take potshots at the governor, but responsibility for the state government's shortcomings. Whether it's computers or management decisions, touch Republican and Democratic politicians alike. Here burrows elaborates
there's enough blame in this room to go around everywhere, in reference to the continuity and past administrations. I mean, I guess maybe I'm getting bogged down with or attacking everything and not looking at what needs to be done.
He ever so briefly did note the administration of Governor Sam Brownback decision to spend 17 million to develop a cloud storage system. The project was ditched and millions of dollars in computer equipment sat for years in the basement of a Topeka building, the embarrassing pile of hardware was eventually given away. It also should be noted governor Kelly said in an interview after the committee's meeting, that neglect of the Labor Department's computer system and demands on the pandemic were a recipe for disaster that few could have anticipated. She also said the agency should be credited for progress made under trying circumstances. Galena Senator Richard Hildebrand who has a major problem with the state's backlog of legitimate unemployment claims he was generous enough to start his critique with praise for the Labor Department's good faith effort,
critical labor lately or in the past because of various issues, but I do want to show a little bit of appreciation that you guys have come a long way and I appreciate that, but we still have a long ways to go. So I've got my question. What is the backlog currently on the program?
In his conversation, state Labor Department officials couldn't give him a number on the lingering claims and that federally funded programs serving people not typically covered by unemployment insurance. That response wasn't satisfactory to Hildebrand the GOP senator,
it's just irritating knowing that we have people still today and I'm gonna harp on this until they finally get paid p way out Applicants since March and April, still have not received a paycheck from their UI benefits when they qualify. fraudulent claims are getting paid above these people. And then we have an administration instead of trying to solidify a UI program that is in trouble with variable cares act money, we're going to now borrow money. We're just so fiscally irresponsible in this day.
And those remarks, Senator Hildebrand was referring to the governor's veto of a proposal from GOP legislators to put leftover federal stimulus money into the state's unemployment Trust Fund. The idea would be to relieve some of the burden on Kansas businesses that will be responsible for rebuilding the depleted UI fund. On Friday, the state finance Council and the governor agreed that at the end of December, if there's any of this federal money leftover, they will put it in the unemployment Trust Fund. Another issue at the Capitol are the anecdotal reports of Kansans declining job offers, because they can make more in the short term by drawing state and federal unemployment insurance. That irritates Republicans on the joint committee greatly. But there was one democrat on the committee who argued the approach of these Kansas is economically rational. First, let's turn to representative Tarwater, who argued Kansas should punish unemployed people who turned down any job.
They should stop paying those people when you let them know that because you've offered them a job. But instead, we're we're just paying out funds that aren't ours, to these people. And it's going to be on our businesses to replenish replenish this because our governor isn't going to stand up for him.
Senator Julie Allen, the committee's Chairwoman from Johnson County picked up on that same thread and drew her own conclusion.
It's almost like on the part of the job seekers, just a
lot of complacency that compelled representative Stephanie Clayton, a Johnson County democrat with a knack for politely delivering scathing criticism to flip on her microphone, you might want to strap in here, here's what she said, it's
worth us understanding that there's a lot more nuance to this, that I can't just go get a job, and that it's not really complacency. Rather, it's people having to really do a lot of emotional, emotional labor and figure out what is the best job in order to provide for our families, which isn't just going out and getting some random job where you can get sick, especially when we see a lot of mask mandates that aren't being followed, disease is spreading. And it's important for mothers and fathers to stay healthy and not end up putting their kids in quarantine. So when you're talking about jobs that are available, are these jobs that are family conducive during the pandemic, ie ones that won't, you know, knock out a whole classroom of students because mom got sick at her job, or are these ones that are just any random job that are not practical for families. So just in case you were wondering, I'm looking after families because I'm living this in my household. And I know my constituents are too.
She couldn't resist piling on to the irritation of a republican senator sitting next to her.
So these people are not being lazy. They're being smart, and they're playing the long games for their families. I really do think that we can all work together and find solutions. But I've got to be a voice for these folks. That's my role here.
Wichita senator Jeanne Solon trop, a deep skeptic of the governor's leadership on the covid 19 pandemic offers a rebuttal.
That's somewhat concerning to hear. Because I'll assure you those same people, when they go to the grocery store, they expect toilet paper to be on the shelf. They expect food to be on the shelves, they expect milk to be on the shelves. those same people expect electricity to cover their house, gas to heat it. fuel and fuel stations to supply their transportation with fuel. They expect all this from everyone else. And they themselves will do their part. So I'm not feeling much sympathy for those folks right now.
During the day's meeting at the Capitol, Tarwater returned several times to questions of unemployment insurance fraud. The primary target of his angsana video conference call was Peter Brady, the deputy secretary of the State Department of Labor. This provides some flavor of those exchanges and it starts with Tarwater, with Brady responding.
Continuing down the fraud path. How much have you identified that you have paid out in fraud? You don't seem to have a whole lot of information information. So I apologize. I'm asking these questions but this has been going on for quite a while I would figured that you would have some of it at least Can you take Guess on how much you've paid out in fraud exam I would not want to speculate as to what might be described problem is worse than then. I think you're
either you know, or you're letting on. Brady also told the committee the Labor Department put a stop to more than 100,000 attempts to defraud the unemployment system. That's significant because if these illegal attempts are successful, people victimized through theft of a social security number can expect to be asked to pay income tax on that jobless benefit. It can be a messy situation when Kansas begin filing 2020 tax returns. And that caught the attention of Democratic Representative Jim Gardner of Topeka
is my concern April 15 rolls around next year, and we're gonna have 100,000 claimants that all of a sudden taxes income taxes to the state of Kansas and our phones will be running.
At one point Tarwater stopped the proceeding to register frustration with the zoom conversation with labor officials. He asked that state agency officials be compelled to hear peer personally before the committee in the future.
And we're all here across the street. So maybe in the future, we can get them to actually come over here.
Okay, a quick explanation here of the situation in the committee. of the 12 Committee members in the room, only four were wearing a mask. It was all three democrats and a republican with a serious medical condition. The eight other senators and representatives were all republicans and all maskless and that's not against House and Senate rules. But clearly, public health officials are convinced wearing a mask inhibits the spread of the virus. Tarwater also despaired of the mountains of cash that appears to have been spent over the years and Labor Department IT projects. But as he says it bought nothing worthwhile. He said in 2002, the state authorized 24 million in bonds for an IT upgrade at the Labor Department. The federal government chipped in 27 million for it improvements A few years later, primarily the money was spent patching the 1970s era mainframe computer system. It's the same one the Labor Department operates now, and the agency is preparing a report on options for overhauling the network. Senator Lynn the committee Chairwoman agreed it was perplexing the agency had yet to escape its dysfunctional computer system. She instructed the Labor Department to provide a document paper trail of past it expenditures.
Large amounts of money were given for this purpose up to 40 million. And we don't know what happened to that money.
Lynn also welcome to the hearing Philip Hayes, who works for a Kansas human resource company and represents the State Council of the Society for human resource management. He said the organization's survey of members two months ago where field 80% have come across some evidence of unemployment fraud in Kansas. The Department of Labor's fraud detection convention is woefully small, he says there are 31 state and contract workers dealing with corruption in the system. Listen, as he explains,
quite honestly, I think DLL should have a response team more than the 14 in house in the 17th from Accenture that is dedicated to the fraud piece that's 31 people for 71,000 rated employers and a million plus employees across the state 31 people there's no there's no way they can even touch this.
He's also said there are Facebook support groups, thoroughly documenting the human costs of the state's unemployment system debacle. He is begging legislators to put down their rhetorical swords and work together on obstacles plaguing the system. It's an appropriate point on which to close this round of the Kansas legislators debate. Hayes has the final word. It seems
like all that gets done is a bunch of finger pointing. And I don't care about any of that. I just want a solution that works for us and for my employees when that day comes. And that's the bottom line.
This has been another edition of the Kansas reflector podcast. I'm your host Tim carpenter. We'll be back next week with another episode. Until then, thanks for listening.