GOP claims Kansas governor is spending COVID funds illegally

Gov. Laura Kelly
Posted at 1:01 PM, Aug 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-17 14:01:22-04

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Top Republican legislators in Kansas are accusing Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's administration of illegally spending at least $86 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds by not getting their approval first.

Kelly's office on Tuesday did not immediately respond to a letter from Senate President Ty Masterson, House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. and the chairs of the House and Senate budget committees. In the letter sent Monday, the lawmakers threatened to "explore all necessary legal actions" if she does not seek approval from leaders of the GOP-controlled Legislature before state agencies spend relief dollars.

Their dispute centers on relief funds that agencies received before the state's current 2022 budget year began July 1. The four Republicans contend that a budget measure approved by lawmakers and signed by Kelly in May required an advisory committee's review and legislative leaders' consent for any spending starting July 1.

"Respect for the rule of law compels you to cease your attempt to circumvent the will of the people as expressed by the Legislature and approved by your own hand," the Republican lawmakers wrote.

Kelly's office contends the spending in question falls under a plan legislative leaders approved in June 2020, allocating $1.8 billion in federal relief funds. The disagreement was first reported by the Sunflower State Journal.

The GOP lawmakers said the June 2020 allocations allowed spending only through June 30. After that date, they said, Kelly's administration illegally spent at least $82.7 million on aid to cities and counties with fewer than 50,000 residents, $2.3 million on public-service announcements by the state health department and $1.5 million on consulting services for the health department.

The Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers have sparred since early in the pandemic over the state's response to COVID-19. Top Republicans ended a state of emergency for the pandemic June 15 after Kelly argued for keeping it in place at least through this month.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican running for governor next year, provided a brief legal opinion last month that Masterson, an Andover Republican, and Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, are using to bolster their arguments about spending.

Schmidt said in a letter that the budget measure signed by Kelly in May set up a specific procedure for handling relief funds after July 1. A seven-member advisory board must review spending proposals, and the State Finance Council must approve them.

The Finance Council handles budget matters between the Legislature's annual January-to-May sessions. The council is the governor and eight legislative leaders; six currently are Republicans, including the four signing the letter to Kelly.

"We have reviewed further provisions of law and so far discovered none that authorizes a different procedure," Schmidt wrote.

New COVID-19 cases have increased in Kansas since late June because of the faster-spreading delta variant, with delta cases confirmed in 90 of the state's 105 counties as of Monday. The state health department reported an average of 1,170 new cases a day for the seven days ending Monday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday that 46.5% of the state's 2.9 million residents were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The national figure was 50.8%.