Kansas GOP lawmakers plan to fast-track unemployment bill, after House advances bill

Capitol Bureau

TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – Kansas lawmakers are planning to move quickly on an unemployment bill that House members passed on Thursday.

The Kansas House voted to pass the bill, HB 2196, with 87 members voting in favor and 36 opposed. Now, it moves to the Senate.

Representative Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, who chairs the state’s Commerce, Labor, and Economic Development committee, which sponsors the bill, said he’s been in talks with lawmakers on the Senate side, who are planning to push it through.

“It should run smoothly over there, and we’ll pass it and get it on the governor’s desk real quick,” Rep. Tarwater told Kansas’ Capitol Bureau.

Stilwell said he’s been in talks with Senate Commerce committee chair Senator Robert Olson, R-Olathe. Both the House and Senate have held hearings on their own versions of the bill (HB 2196 and SB 177).

The Senate’s version of the bill was moved to the Senate Committee on Federal and State Affairs on Thursday.

Tarwater said with the House’s version moving to the Senate, lawmakers could take action on it sooner.

The bill is set to make some major changes to the state’s unemployment system. This includes kickstarting a project to modernize the I.T. system for the state’s labor department and create a council to oversee it.

It also provides protections for employers, who are victims of fraud. If the bill passes the senate, employers would not have to pay the state for claims reported as fraudulent. For those that are unemployed, it would create a shared work program, which will include job-matching services to help get them back in the workforce.

As for addressing the high volume of fraud that plagued the state’s labor department during the pandemic, Rep. Tarwater said the bill requires the state’s labor department to provide communicate at least two months in advance of any warnings from the U.S. Department of Labor.

“What we’re working on is a long-term fix to keep this from ever happening again,” he said.

However, the bill would also shorten the amount of weeks Kansans can receive unemployment insurance benefits. Due to the pandemic, Kansans have now received unemployment benefits extended up to 26 weeks. Under the new measure, Kansans would be eligible for unemployment benefits up to 20 weeks.

Opponents of the bill have said these extra 6 weeks provide much-needed help to Kansans that are struggling financially.

“I cannot in good conscious vote for a bill that cuts unemployment benefits and complicates the process,” said Representative Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, who serves as the state’s House Minority Leader.

Sawyer rose in opposition of the bill, as the House took final action on Thursday. He also disagreed with its use of funds.

Governor Laura Kelly allocated $37 million for the I.T. modernization project for the state’s unemployment system. The governor also urged Congress to act swiftly on providing more funds to aid states facing similar I.T. issues.

However, the state’s labor department estimated the current project, including the compensation for the oversight council, would require more that $47 million.

The bill would also stipulate that an amount upward of $450 million be transferred from federal coronavirus relief funds to the Employment Security Fund, as the state faces a dwindling unemployment trust fund after an outpour of fraudulent payments.

The measure states that in the event the full $450.0 million transfer is not made, the Director of Accounts and Reports, upon receiving the certification regarding the amount of fraudulent and improper payments, would be required to immediately transfer an amount equal to the improper payment to the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund from either the State General Fund or another fund in the State Treasury authorized by the Governor, and approved by State Finance Council.

“The governor’s already included money for modernization in her budget, but this bill would become a roadblock for Kansans, who desperately need help, during a pandemic, when they need help more than ever,” Sawyer said.

Click here to read more about the bill.

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