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Gov. Laura Kelly and GOP lawmakers reach a deal on how to dole out federal COVID-19 relief dollars



TOPEKA, Kan. – Legislators have backed off a plan to take control of how the state spends billions of dollars in federal relief aid from Gov. Laura Kelly and have instead settled on a deal to give both sides a say in how the money is spent.

For the state’s cut of federal CARES Act dollars last year, which totaled roughly $1 billon, a taskforce set up by Kelly’s administration made recommendations to the State Finance Council, a panel of top officials primarily composed of GOP legislators.

But the governor chairs that committee and has veto power over its actions — powers she used on several occasions. This frustrated GOP legislators, prompting a push to ensure they have the final say on earmarking future federal aid.

“The Legislature really didn’t have … an authoritative voice in that process,” Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, told reporters Wednesday.

That culminated in a provision, included in the state budget, transferring oversight duties to a panel of eight top legislative leaders, six of whom are Republican. Kelly rejected that last week and negotiations over a way forward commenced in recent days.

A deal reached Thursday would maintain the current infrastructure used for past federal relief money but would give legislators more of a voice in the process.

Kelly and her allies have pointed out that a system exists to manage the relief funds, process grant applications and handle the nuts and bolts that come along with doling out federal money. Those steps can be onerous but are required to avoid having to repay misused funds.

The Kansas Office of Recovery was created to handle the process and two advisory panels were formed to provide recommendations to lawmakers — a process the governor has maintained worked efficiently.

“You don’t fix something that it isn’t broken,” Kelly told The Topeka Capital-Journal. “Kansas might have had the most sophisticated process for allocating those CARES monies all across the state to businesses, to the counties. We did it quickly. We did it efficiently and we did it in a way that holds us accountable.”

As part of the deal between Kelly and Republican lawmakers, one of the committees used to review the funds has been expanded to give legislators a majority of the seats. That group would have to review any proposed use of the relief dollars.

The ultimate decision on the matter would still be made by the State Finance Council and Kelly would retain her veto powers.

Masterson said the process would now have appropriate checks and balances on all sides.

“I think it was fair,” he said. “It wasn’t one side taking all their toys and going home.”