By John Celock
Following a debate where Democrats voiced concerns over a possible loss of federal funds, the Kansas Senate advanced legislation Thursday to overhaul the state’s unemployment insurance system.
The Senate voted 29-11 to pass a conference committee report that includes capping maximum weekly unemployment benefits at $474 a week with benefits equal to 55 percent of the average weekly salary, along with changing provisions that would allow for merit hiring of those in the state’s unemployment division. Democrats objected to the merit-hiring proposal, saying that it could lead to the loss of federal funds which require merit systems in place.
“The path that we are going down is a troubling path for the state of Kansas, “ Sen. Tom Holland (D-Baldwin City) said. “While today we talk about Department of Labor and the administration of unemployment. This really effects any federal grant program the state of Kansas is responsible for.”
Holland was citing a March letter from a U.S. Department of Labor official who said that the state could jeopardize federal grant funding if the state does not allow for a merit system for hiring those running the unemployment program. The letter has been cited by Democrats in the House and Senate in objecting to the unemployment insurance bill.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Julia Lynn (R-Olathe) objected to the Democrats, saying that the unemployment bill will not place the federal funds in jeopardy. She said that during a conference call with the author of the DOL letter and 10 attorneys from the Labor Department, she and other senators were assured that the funds would not be placed in jeopardy. She said that Gov. Sam Brownback (R) is the one who would certify to the federal government that the state’s policies meet federal rules.
“That was a trick to say that the world is going to fall apart and we’re not going to happen,” Lynn said. “It is a trick on a hyped up fear to say we’re not get funding.”
Democrats objected to Lynn’s characterization, saying that the U.S. Labor Department will make the decision in conjunction with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
“Let’s not play Russian roulette here,” Holland said.
Lynn said the changes were needed in order to allow for the state Department of Labor to have greater hiring flexibility in the unemployment division. She said that the policy is similar to other parts of the department and the private sector.
“This gives the secretary more flexibility. It gives him or her the modernize our personal standards and go through an application process.,” she said. “Instead of an old civil service policy we want to move to a vetting process that we use in the other sections of the Department of Labor.”
Supporters of the bill have focused on the other provisions saying that it would be better for the state’s business community by providing more predictability for businesses in paying into the unemployment system. During a state House debate last month, Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to amend the bill to raise the provisions for payouts.
The legislation is the latest effort by Brownback to overhaul the state’s civil service policies. Lawmakers are also considering a bill that would allow the state to change classified positions to unclassified. The civil service bill is pending in the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley (D-Topeka) defended the civil service system to the Senate, praising former Gov. Bob Bennett (R) for his work on the system in the 1970s.
“I don’t believe that we as a Legislature should retreat to the dark ages of political patronage,” Hensley said.