This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to your local newspaper.
There are worthwhile questions to be raised about how the Kansas Department of Labor is handling a sudden onslaught of unemployment claims. The new coronavirus has exposed shortcomings throughout our country’s infrastructure, from an absence of intensive care beds to challenges with toilet paper supply chains.
Gov. Laura Kelly, as head of the state’s executive branch, bears ultimate responsibility for the department’s lackluster performance. Aging computer systems have led to lengthy delays as Kansans attempt to register, and the governor’s response has been less than full throated.
“It’s sort of like repairing a plane in the air,” Kelly said, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Sherman Smith and Tim Carpenter. “I know this process has been frustrating. We will continue to build capacity for those seeking to make unemployment claims.”
But with all that being said, Senate President Susan Wagle’s attempt to pin sole responsibility for the problems on Kelly is a blatant, opportunistic rewriting of history.
Let’s remember that it was Wagle’s party that shepherded a massive tax “experiment” that sent Kansas into an economic swoon for the better part of five years. Needs throughout state government were neglected over that time, as work on critical systems was delayed or canceled. We saw the effects in schools, roads, prisons and in state agencies. We still see it rippling through the state’s foster care system.
Kelly was elected, in large part, because she ran against this legacy of austerity. She has made progress by selecting, by and large, talented administrators for various state agencies. Progress has been made.
But other aftereffects of disinvestment can be hidden, until events reveal them. In a time of historically low unemployment, the Department of Labor’s computer system no doubt seemed like a low priority. What a difference a month makes.
The question for Wagle, and for others in her party who might be tempted to score cheap political points during a crisis, is this: What would you have done differently? Would your candidate in the last gubernatorial race, Kris Kobach, have made the kind of changes needed to support unemployed Kansans?
We can all imagine the answer to that one.
Kelly shouldn’t be let off the hook. She is the governor, and she owns this problem. Her overall leadership during the pandemic has been impressive from a public health perspective. But as the crisis spreads into the economy, she and her administration will be called upon to do even more.
We should all — including those in the opposition party — hope that she succeeds.