TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican lawmakers are moving to exert more control over upgrades to Kansas' unemployment benefits system, and a key GOP legislator has even suggested stripping Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of her control over the state Department of Labor.
The Kansas Senate Commerce Committee continued hearings Wednesday on a bill that would create a new council to monitor Department of Labor technology upgrades, direct the agency to modernize the unemployment system by the end of 2022, and make other changes to the system for distributing benefits to jobless workers. Its House counterpart is considering a separate but identical measure, and both committees hope to vote on them this week.
Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature have been critical of Kelly and the department for months over problems during the coronavirus pandemic that Kelly and agency officials have blamed on a decades-old computer system, including delays in getting benefits to workers. GOP lawmakers in recent weeks have intensified their focus on whether Kansas has paid thousands of fraudulent claims and whether employers are on the hook for covering the cost until the scamming is uncovered.
The scrutiny— and GOP criticism — has increased even though the department shut down the unemployment system from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2 to install new security protocols that it says have blocked fraudulent log-in attempts at a rate of three every second. Senate Commerce Committee Chair Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican, said lawmakers are trying to make sure that technology gets upgraded and avoid a future “catastrophe.”
“What will come out of this, hopefully moving forward, is that we stay on top of this,” Olson said during a hearing Tuesday. “Maybe we need to redo the whole Labor Department organization and remove it from under the governor.”
Olson said later that he has considered whether the department should answer to a board of trustees rather than the governor, as the state's pension system for teachers and government workers does.
“We need to think outside the box on this one,” he said.
But Kelly spokesperson Sam Coleman said Kansas was left unprepared to deal with the effects of the pandemic by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's administration, which led the state from 2011 until 2018. Brownback's administration stopped a Department of Labor modernization project that some Republicans at the time worried was wasteful in its spending, but Coleman said Kansas should not “repeat mistakes of the past.”
Kelly attributed GOP lawmakers' intensifying criticism to them “just laying the groundwork” to try to prevent her reelection in 2022.
“I'm fully aware that we have issues over there, and we are doing everything in our power and putting an incredible amount of resources to resolving the issues,” Kelly said. “We will just continue to do that and not get sidetracked by the rhetoric and conversation.”
Kelly has included $37.5 million in her proposed budget for upgrading the unemployment system's computer technology, but Deputy Labor Secretary Peter Brady told the House committee last week that the work is likely to take two to three years after vendor proposals are reviewed and one is picked. He said the Dec. 31, 2022, deadline for completing the project “is not realistic.”
Brady also said that although the department plans to work with interested parties, creating the new council and having it make recommendations about upgrading technology could delay the project.
He also noted that the bill is specific about what upgrades are required and said putting those details in law also could slow down the project.
“I've never seen them describe the architecture to that level in statute before,” Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican, said of other bills dealing with computer systems during Tuesday's Senate committee hearing. “And I have some concern over that.”
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