The state Senate on Thursday approved changes in staffing policy at the Kansas Department of Labor, despite warnings from Democrats that the action could threaten $18 million the state receives to operate the unemployment insurance program.
By a vote of 29-11, senators approved Senate Bill 154, which would eliminate a requirement that workers in the unemployment insurance department be hired based on merit exams administered by the state secretary of labor.
In addition, the bill would allow employees to endorse and contribute to partisan candidates and participate in party political groups.
The bill also caps the state’s maximum unemployment benefit at the current level of $474 a week and keeps it there until the average wage earned by Kansas workers overall rises by 9 percent.
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The bill now goes to the governor’s desk.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the bill strips state Labor Department employees of vital civil service protection that prevents political patronage in hiring and precludes bosses from coercing employees into campaigning for the party in power.
He also reminded the overwhelmingly Republican Senate that a Republican governor, Robert Bennett, put the system in place “because we’d had the experience of a spoils system” in public employment.
“I don’t believe that we as a Legislature should retreat back into the dark ages of political patronage,” he said.
Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, fought the measure in committee. He presented the senators with several documents indicating that the state might lose Labor Department funding if hiring and the personnel system aren’t merit based.
He said he supports the benefits freeze, but the changes in employee policy are the part that “is going to get us in hot water with the feds.”
The Kansas department receives $17.5 million in federal funding to administer the unemployment insurance program and $660,000 to run employment offices.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, carried the final bill on the floor and said the Democrats’ fears are groundless.
She said the concerns over federal funding were discussed and dismissed in the committee process. Committee Republicans and the state Labor Department have concluded that as long as the secretary of labor or the governor certifies the system as merit based, the federal department can’t overrule that and rescind funding.
She also said the rules on political activity by employees mirror current federal standards.
“This is probably one of the most thoroughly vetted bills I’ve worked on since I’ve been here,” Lynn said. “I think there’s been some innuendos that the (Kansas) Department of Labor is not living up to its ethical standards. I take a little offense at that.”
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How they voted
Here’s how south-central Kansas senators voted on SB 154, which passed 29-11.
Republicans voting yes: Les Donovan, Michael O’Donnell and Susan Wagle, Wichita; Steve Abrams, Arkansas City; Terry Bruce, Hutchinson; Dan Kerschen, Garden Plain; Forrest Knox, Altoona; Ty Masterson, Andover; Richard Wilborn, McPherson
Republicans voting no: Mike Petersen, Wichita; Carolyn McGinn, Sedgwick
Democrats voting no: Oletha Faust-Goudeau, Wichita