Kansas GOP leaders say new food assistance policy breaks state law

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, answers questions from reporters, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA — Top Republican legislators on Tuesday accused Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration of breaking Kansas law with a new policy that makes it easier for adults who are not working to keep receiving food assistance.

Kansas House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins demanded in a letter to Kelly that the governor rescind the policy, which was issued May 17. The policy says the state Department for Children and Families will extend assistance month by month for some able-bodied adults without children instead of cutting it off because the recipient isn’t working or enrolled in job training.

The department maintained that the policy is legal. The agency said it will help the homeless and young adults aging out of state custody in the foster care system.

Hawkins, a conservative Wichita Republican, said the letter was his way of putting Kelly “on notice” that the department is violating a 2015 law codifying stricter rules for the state’s food and cash assistance programs that former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration set. Kelly was a state senator before taking office as governor in January and strongly opposed the law.

“It comes as no surprise that Laura Kelly is violating the law in (an) attempt to grow the welfare state in Kansas,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, who is also a conservative Republican from Wichita. “We will do everything possible to hold our governor accountable and ensure she complies with the law.”

It was not clear how far top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature were prepared to go to overturn the new food assistance policy. Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt declined through a spokesman to comment on whether he agreed that the policy violated state law and whether he would take legal action.

“DCF intends to move forward with this policy,” the agency said in a statement emailed by spokesman Mike Deines.

The federal government pays for food assistance and covers half of each state’s costs in administering it. It generally limits able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 without dependents to three months of assistance within a three-year period if they aren’t working or enrolled in job training.

The 2015 state law specifies the same policy and says the Department for Children and Families can’t ask the federal government for a waiver or start a program to avoid the rule. The same law also gained national attention for telling families they can’t use cash assistance to attend concerts, get tattoos, see a psychic or buy lingerie. The list of don’ts amounted to several dozen items.

The department said its new policy is neither a waiver nor a new program.

The policy said the federal government gives states some flexibility to grant exemptions “as they deem appropriate” to extend assistance month by month. Because Kansas didn’t use exemptions “for many years,” some 58,000 “have accumulated,” with each good for a one-month extension for one adult, the policy said.

“Federal law explicitly allows this and other exemptions,” the department said.

Critics argue that Kansas’ tougher rules hurt struggling families, and before Kelly took office, she called on legislators to roll them back. The idea got no serious consideration before lawmakers adjourned last week for the year.

Since its current budget year began in July 2018, Kansas has provided food assistance to an average of about 109,000 adults and nearly 98,000 children a month. The average cost is just short of $111 per person.

The total number of people receiving food assistance, now averaging 207,000 a month, is down nearly 35 percent from its 2013 peak of 316,000 but higher than it was before the Great Recession.

The 2015 law, which Hawkins helped draft, had widespread support among Republicans, who argue that it moves welfare recipients toward self-sufficiency.

“She’s proposed to protect and defend the statutes of the state of Kansas,” Hawkins said of Kelly. “To go out and subvert that, I think, is just wrong.”


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