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Republican Push Urging Kansas Governor To End Federal Unemployment Benefits Stumbles For Now

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is the target of pressure from Republicans urging her to drop federal pandemic unemployment payments.

Republicans are pushing Gov. Kelly to eliminate the $300 additional weekly unemployment payments because they say the money makes it harder to fill open jobs.

The push by Republicans to end the $300 dollar per week additional federal unemployment payment in Kansas reached a peak this week with a letter signed by 200 groups calling on the governor to eliminate the benefit.

But there was one problem: leaders of some of those groups say they never agreed to sign the letter.

It was a stumble in what has been a coordinated effort by Republicans to urge the Democratic governor to end the payments. The GOP and business groups argue the larger unemployment payments are keeping workers at home and making it harder to fill jobs.

“They’re on a mission to remove the weekly $300 enhanced unemployment benefit,” House Democratic Leader Tom Sawyer said in a statement.

The fight began in earnest two weeks ago when Gov. Mike Parson from neighboring Missouri announced the state would opt out of the additional unemployment insurance benefits beginning June 12.

The same day, Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall introduced a plan to roll back federal unemployment benefits to $150 per week by the end of May and completely end the benefits by the end of June.

“I can guarantee you,” Marshall told Cheddar News, “(Employees are) getting paid more to stay home than go back to work.”

Since then 22 states have announced they’ll end federal benefits by early July.

In a letter sent to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly this week, all of the Republicans in the Kansas congressional delegation argued that continuing federal benefits through September “provides a lucrative government incentive to stay home despite clear signs that the economy is recovering and life is trending toward normal.”

The coordinated attempt to cajole Kelly into dropping the benefits early ran into an unforced error Thursday when it was revealed a letter signed by nearly 200 groups featured organizations that had unwittingly been added by lower-level employees. Those groups included a local library and the Greater Wichita YMCA.

The letter had previously been touted in a statement by Republican leadership in the state House as evidence that Kelly “continues to hold Kansas back.”

But Kelly has, so far, demurred to the pleas from her Republican counterparts.

"We have not really made a final decision on that issue. It is something we are exploring," she said to reporters last week.

"There is conflicting anecdotal data right now,” she said, “and I need to just study the issue.”

The April report from the Kansas Department of Labor shows unemployment in the state has gone down from 3.7% in March to 3.5% in April. That’s down from one year ago at the height of the pandemic when it was 12.6%.

“Great progress is being made as we are approaching pre-pandemic unemployment rates,” Kansas Department of Labor Secretary Amber Schultz said in a statement.

Rep. Jason Probst, a Democrat from Hutchinson, was called by the Wichita YMCA, the Hutchison library and a local roofing company who initially didn’t know how they were added to the letter asking the governor to roll back federal benefits.

Probst said the letter from the congressional delegation, powerful business groups and the statement from House Republicans “seems like a very coordinated thing to me.”

Probst said he doesn’t doubt some local businesses are having trouble finding workers, but he suspects that could be a direct result of low or stagnant wages.

“That's the root of the problem,” he said. “I don't think it's federal benefits.”

Jeremy Hill, the director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University, said Kansas does have a wage problem.

“Kansas has had a problem over the last decade,” Hill said, “where wages on average were not increasing at the rate of the national level.”

Hill said that caused some people to move out of state, and the base of available workers became smaller, which made for a tight labor market even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, there are multiple factors that complicate whether employers are able to fill jobs and whether employees are able to find a job that fits the demands and expenses of their lifestyle.

Unlike the Great Recession, workers displaced from jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t returning to the same jobs. Even if they’re able to return to work, they may be limited by caretaking or lack of child care.

“We haven't added a lot of jobs from a year ago,” he said. “But we've added a lot more people in the labor market looking for a job than a year ago.”

Abigail Censky is the political reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter@AbigailCensky or email her at abigailcensky (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link toksnewsservice.org.

It’s my job to explain statewide politics to our audience with clarity and context. Sometimes that means tracking developments in the Legislature and shining light on things that alter the laws, the taxes and the services of state government. Other times it means traveling throughout the state to amplify the voices and stories of Kansans. And, critically, I strive to hold our public officials accountable. Reach me at abigailcensky@kcur.org.
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