Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly on Thursday dropped a policy that allowed several thousand Kansas adults to keep receiving food assistance after failing to meet a work requirement, reversing course days after the state's Republican attorney general threatened to file a lawsuit.
Kelly continued to defend the change made by the state Department for Children and Families in May on humanitarian and legal grounds. Top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature argue that it violated a 2015 law enacted under conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback that imposed a work requirement and other restrictions on food and cash assistance recipients.
The department provided food assistance in July for 5,500 adults who were supposed to have it cut off because they weren't meeting the work requirement and planned to do so again in August and September. Attorney General Derek Schmidt told Kelly in a letter Monday that if she did not drop the policy, he was prepared to go to court to challenge it.
"While my team believes the policy we put in place is legally defensible, we have determined that it isn't worth the cost to Kansas taxpayers to engage in a protracted court battle," Kelly said during a Statehouse news conference.
The federal government pays for food assistance and covers half of each state's administrative costs. It generally limits able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 without dependents to three months of assistance within a three-year period if they aren't working or enrolled in job training.
The 2015 state law specifies the same policy and says the department can't ask the federal government for a waiver or start a program to avoid the rule. The law makes it harder to undo stricter policies for food and cash assistance that Brownback's administration set.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican, said in a statement that it's disappointing it took Schmidt's threat of a lawsuit to force Kelly to "comply with the law." She and other supporters of work requirements argue that they help move adults and families who are dependent on government assistance into jobs and self-sufficiency.
"Her desire to expand welfare to adults without dependents who are capable of working is repulsive to hardworking Kansas taxpayers," said Wagle, who is considering a run for the U.S. Senate next year.
The department argued that it wasn't asking the federal government to waive any rules and that granting exemptions from the work requirement wasn't starting a new program. The federal government gives states some flexibility to grant exemptions month by month.
Department officials have said the exemptions were designed to help the homeless as well as young adults who are aging out of the state's foster care system for abused and neglected children. But the department planned to issue more than 16,000 exemptions over three months, meaning a broader group was receiving the extra assistance.
"I won't apologize for that," DCF Secretary Laura Howard said during Kelly's news conference. "There are an awful lot of reasons where folks who are deemed to be able-bodied adults may run into an issue."
Kelly was a state senator before becoming governor in January and strongly opposed the 2015 law. The measure gained national attention for telling families they can't use cash assistance to attend concerts, get tattoos, see a psychic or buy lingerie. The list of don'ts amounted to several dozen items.
Critics contend Brownback's welfare policies punished poor families. Kelly and some advocates argue that the stress of losing benefits caused more children to be abused or neglected and placed in foster care.
Kelly said she'll ask legislators next year to remove welfare requirements from state law, so her administration can change them. She suggested repealing welfare restrictions before taking office as governor and the idea was a nonstarter in the Legislature this year, but Kelly told reporters she hopes to appeal to rank-and-file GOP lawmakers next year.
Meanwhile, Kelly publicly chastised Schmidt for being "mean-spirited" rather than acknowledging "the good we were trying to achieve."
Schmidt, who also is considering a run for the U.S. Senate, called Kelly's decision "a victory for the rule of law."