Archive for Monday, January 29, 2007

Fight erupts over report on jobless benefits

January 29, 2007

By Scott Rothschild

Topeka - A partisan fight erupted Monday stemming from a state audit that shows Kansas ranks first in the nation in "overpayments" of jobless benefits.

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said he wants state Rep. Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, to step down as chair of the Legislative Post Audit Committee.

The Post Audit Committee is a bipartisan committee of House and Senate members that oversees the audit arm of state government.

Hensley said Mast issued a "partisan attack" against the Kansas Department of Labor, which is headed by Jim Garner, a Cabinet level post in Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' administration.

But Mast said her comments were not partisan. She said she issued a news release because she was concerned about the Labor Department's efforts in correcting the so-called overpayments.

"This is not an attack on the Democrats. I just want to stand for good policy," she said.

The Lawrence Journal-World reported the audit's findings on Friday.

It showed thatKansas had the highest overpayment rate of any state in the nation from 2003 through 2005.

During 2005, the department reported, the overpayment rate was nearly 45 percent of the $256 million in benefits, while the national average was under 10 percent.

But state officials say the overpayments are based on technical problems, and not related to jobless people getting paid through fraudulent means.

Almost all of the overpayments occurred because unemployed workers didn't register for job services, as required by state law. So they weren't considered eligible for jobless benefits even though they continued to collect them.

But Garner argued that the job-services requirement was outdated because most workers were able to find new jobs without the need of the services.

After the audit's release, Mast and other Republicans issued a statement on letterhead from the Kansas House Republican Caucus saying they were alarmed by the audit's findings and disappointed in how the Labor Department was being run.

Hensley, a 31-year legislative veteran, said for Republican lawmakers to issue a news release like that was "about as low a point in the post-audit process that I've seen."

Mast said after the meeting Friday when the audit was reviewed, she went to House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, to seek direction on what she should do to get the word out about the audit because she was concerned about its findings.

He offered his staff to issue the news release, she said.

Noting the audit, she said, "I think my concerns are valid."

- Staff writer Scott Rothschild can be reached at 785-354-4222

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