Kansas lawmakers adopt bill expanding unemployment insurance to 26 weeks, up from 20 weeks, while Senate dives into budget fight influenced by COVID-19 and Medicaid expansion.

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TOPEKA — The Kansas House and Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation Tuesday expanding by 10 weeks availability of unemployment benefits in response to aviation layoffs in Wichita and emerging economic threats of the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure, if signed by Gov. Laura Kelly, would be retroactive to Jan. 1 and broaden jobless payments to 26 weeks from the current 16 weeks. The benefit would expire April 1, 2021. The House vote was 119-0, with the Senate piling on 29-4.

"We find ourselves in unchartered waters, and no one knows how bad it's going to get or how long it's going to last," said Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell. "We all know it will affect all Kansans, and it's going to hurt. It's not a time for politics. It's time to come together and do the best we can for our fellow Kansans."

He estimated there was about $1 billion in the state’s unemployment trust fund.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said original motivation for the unemployment reform bill was relief to families affected by layoffs at Spirit AeroSystems and other companies in south central Kansas because of suspension of production of the trouble-plagued Boeing 737 Max.

As that legislation moved through the House and into the Senate, COVID-19 began to spread across Kansas and contribute to broader economic challenges tied to closing of schools, public facilities and slumping sales by businesses.

"I think it’s incredibly forward-looking for us to get it into the books now," Holland said.

Under current Kansas law, the state's unemployment rate determines availability of jobless benefits. Whenever the rate surpassed 4.5%, individuals could receive unemployment for 20 weeks. If the level reached 6%, benefits would be provided for 26 weeks. The unemployment rate for Kansas was less than 3% in February.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, presented Tuesday the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year that would appropriate about $20 billion. It promptly came under attack from conservatives frustrated by voting on the budget despite assertions state revenue would collapse in the future in response to COVID-19.

"We know there’s going to be a drop in revenues," said Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha. "We are in a financial storm of historical proportions."

He proposed an amendment — it narrowly failed — to freeze state spending at current levels, with the exception of K-12 education, rather than boost appropriations in the upcoming fiscal year.

"We are government," said McGinn, the Senate budget chairwoman who opposed the freeze. "We are elected by the people to be there for them when there is a crisis. We have to do the work for our constituents back home. They are depending on us to govern today."

She said the national emergency was no time to thwart improvements in Kansas health and social service programs. The Senate eventually passed the budget 27-11.

Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, said adoption of the Senate’s expanded budget combined with economic chaos inspired by the virus could eventually force the state to raid the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System or trigger a state tax increase to cover revenue shortfalls.

"What’s coming is either a large KPERS raid, KDOT raid or tax increase," he said. "I fear the next thing is going to be riots."

Sen. Kevin Braun, R-Kansas City, offered an amendment that would transfer $17.5 million set aside for potential expansion of Medicaid in Kansas to a series of safety-net health clinics in Kansas. The new budget called for a $2 million increase in aid to the clinics. His amendment failed 18-20.

If the Legislature cannot pass an abortion amendment, Braun said, Medicaid expansion sought by the Democratic governor and a bipartisan coalition of legislators should be taken off the table.