SPARK Task Force prioritizing immediate needs

The Kansas SPARK (Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas) Task Force met Wednesday to summarize recent spending and discuss priorities for roughly $300 million in Kansas CARES Act funding. 

The task force is charged with overseeing expenditures of just over $1 billion in federal CARES Act stimulus funding provided by Congress to help states compensate for the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless Congress takes action, CARES Act money must be spent by the end of December. Round 1 of the Task Force’s work committed $400 million to Kansas counties; Round 2 directed just over $300 million to connectivity, economic development, public health and education. 

Task Force Executive Director Julie Lorenz told the task force that member feedback and staff research  indicates a preference to prioritize Round 3 funding on five areas based on urgent needs and immediate impact of funding: public health (testing and medical access); essential needs and services (housing, food, unemployment and safety); business resilience and workforce support (including childcare); education (K-12 and higher education); and connectivity (broadband access). Lorenz said while education and connectivity are important they have previously received some CARES funding and their needs while important are more long-term. 

Task Force member and Senate Majority Leader Senator Jim Denning, who will leave elected office in January, emphasized the need for widespread testing for the virus and for beefed-up support of childcare expenses. Denning said it was “myopic” of Kansas schools to base their reopening decisions on COVID data that he said is based on clusters of outbreaks and symptomatic patients. Denning criticized the state for not providing more childcare support previously and said schools “have no plan” for what to do in the event of forced closures this fall “other than, ‘everyone resign their job’” and stay home with their children.  

Task Force members Rep. Kathy Wolfe-Moore and Senator Carolyn McGinn also characterized childcare as critical to the health of the state’s business sector. Wolfe-Moore is the senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee and McGinn is Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. 

The majority of Tuesday’s meeting was spent in discussion of Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposal to participate in a federal unemployment relief effort that would obligate the state to provide $100 of a total of $400 per week in payments to Kansas who’ve lost their jobs due to the COVID pandemic. The cost to the state would be $63 million. 

The State Finance Council, which is comprised of Governor Laura Kelly; Senate President Susan Wagle; Denning; Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley; McGinn; Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman, House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins; House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer and House Appropriations Chair Troy Waymaster will meet Thursday at 3 p.m. to approve the Task Force’s recommendation to participate in the federal initiative.  

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