Views from Kansas: Don’t use the loophole

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration says it has found a way to provide extended food assistance to adults who can’t meet the state’s work requirements.

Kelly’s goal is laudable. Kansas lawmakers deserve criticism for humiliating the poor with punitive laws and regulations, including an aggressive work requirement. No one wants to be poor, or avoids work to pick up food assistance worth about $110 a month.

Overly stringent work requirements for public benefits in Kansas are meant to punish the poor, not to help them.

But Kansans should be worried whenever a governor uses a regulation or loophole to overturn the clear intent of the Legislature, and that’s what is happening here. Republicans are right to criticize the governor’s approach.

The issue has arisen because the state caps nutrition benefits for able-bodied adults at three months over a 36-month period, unless the client is working or undergoing job training. That’s the federal standard.

The law also prohibits the state from seeking a federal waiver for more generous benefits or beginning a different program to avoid the work requirement.

In a memo dated May 17, though, the Kansas Department for Children and Families said the state had accumulated 58,000 federally authorized exemptions that allow for extended benefits for clients who aren’t working. The state will use those exemptions to “extend food assistance eligibility,” according to the memo.

Republicans understandably have reacted with frustration. House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins called the decision a direct violation of state statutes: “It’s appalling that the Kelly administration would attempt to undermine legislative intent and Kansas law,” he said in a statement.

The Department for Children and Families insists that using the exemptions isn’t the same as a waiver or a new program, so it fits within the law’s framework. The courts may end up determining the legality of the maneuver.

Kelly’s own opposition to strict work requirements for nutrition benefits is clear, and our support for her view remains intact. But the way to loosen those requirements is through a new law, not a regulatory loophole.

To understand this, reverse the situation: What would the reaction be if a Republican governor imposed work requirements for nutrition benefits, in contradiction of a state law prohibiting them? Kansans would be angry, and they’d have a right to be.

If the governor wants to convince Kansans to make food assistance more generous, she should argue that case. Kansas lawmakers are far too interested in hurting the poor, and Kelly is on the right side of this issue.

But the ends don’t justify the means. Using a loophole to reach a policy goal sets a dangerous precedent that future governors could exploit on other issues.

Kelly should rescind the order and then convince the Legislature to change the law.

• Originally published in The Kansas City Star

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