Politics & Government

Kansas attorney general gives Gov. Laura Kelly until Friday to drop welfare plan

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt is giving Gov. Laura Kelly an ultimatum: Drop your plan to keep people on welfare by Friday or I’m going to court.

The Republican attorney general is telling the Democratic governor that a new policy from the Department for Children and Families violates either the letter or spirit of state law. The policy allows some adults without children to receive welfare even if they don’t meet work requirements.

Schmidt’s deadline moves the two officials closer to a legal showdown over how much power Kelly and her agencies have regarding welfare policy. The outcome may affect whether some Kansans can remain on assistance.

Kelly has stood by the policy and her office plans a news conference Thursday to address the issue. She has long been critical of the state’s restrictions on welfare, which lawmakers placed into law under former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

The policy represents an attempt to minimize welfare restrictions through agency action after unsuccessful attempts by Democrats to make changes through the legislative process.

In a letter hand-delivered to Kelly’s office on Monday, Schmidt wrote that if the policy isn’t withdrawn by Friday, “I am prepared to seek a judicial determination” as to whether the policy violates the law.

Kelly and DCF Secretary Laura Howard are both free to advocate changes to the state’s welfare law, Schmidt said. “But unless and until changed, we must give effect to the law that currently is on the books,” he wrote.

He added: “If you decide the policy should persist, it seems to me all involved deserve a clear and authoritative determination of whether DCF really has found a legal loophole that relieves it of the plain purpose of state law.”

Under federal law, able-bodied adults without children can’t receive food assistance for more than three months every three years if they don’t work at least 20 hours a week. However, the U.S. government provides exemptions that states can use to waive the work requirements for some recipients.

On May 17, the Department for Children and Families directed employees to allow people who haven’t followed the work requirements to receive more than three months of assistance. The agency plans to use 58,000 exemptions the state has accumulated.

Asked about Schmidt’s letter, the governor’s office didn’t comment but mentioned the Thursday news conference.

“The exemption would benefit youth aging out of foster care and homeless individuals and at a time of low unemployment and with consideration to the economy and trade mitigation benefits, DCF felt this was a prudent policy change. The program is 100 percent federally funded,” DCF said in a previous statement.

DCF contends that while state law prohibits the agency from requesting waivers or programs that run counter to federal welfare rules, the exemptions are neither.

Over the past few years, Kansas reduced the number of months someone can be in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to 24 months from 36 months. The lifetime limit for the program was cut to three years from four.

Over time, enrollment in welfare programs has declined. Supporters of the restrictions said they prompted people to seek jobs but critics said the changes just kicked people off assistance.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.