Returning to in-person after a year of virtual

Meghan Flynn
Garden City Telegram

One year after the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down and altering daily lives, some events are returning to normalcy.

That includes the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce, which on Saturday held its first in-person legislative coffee in nearly a year. The event was at Garden City Community College.

Statewide unemployment issues because of fraud was a hot topic.

Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, said the whole situation is a mess, adding, "You could write a whole book on what happened."

Doll said part of the problem could be attributed to consequences from the tax cuts of 2012 as there was "a computer thing that was outdated." It was supposed to be updated in 2013 but was cut.

"The pandemic was something no one could see coming, and it was just a perfect storm," he said.

Rep. Russ Jennings talks about the Kansas budget Saturday during a Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce legislative coffee at Garden City Community College.  The coffee, with 25 local residents attending in-person while others watched on Facebook, was the first in-person session since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 24% of the money paid out of the unemployment fund, about $400 million, was fraudulent, Doll said. There was $1 billion in the fund.

A new system was put in about two weeks ago, Doll said. It's better than it was, he said, but added that it's going to continue to be a mess for a while.

"There's really no excuse for what happened. It happened, though, and we have to deal with it," he said. "We must be prepared so nothing like this happens again. We must learn from this."

Rep. Jim Minnix, R-Scott City, said the fraud's "diminished tremendously," but it's difficult to get a secure handle on.

"There's a lot of things that the department of labor needs to work through to improve their infrastructure," he said.

Rep. John Wheeler answers an audience member's question Saturday during a Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce legislative coffee at Garden City Community College.

Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City, said many of the emails he gets about unemployment and fraud related to unemployment are addressed to every representative in the Kansas House and the Senate.

That is the wrong way to handle it, Wheeler said.

"They don't indicate where they're from, what their address is, that type of thing so we can refer to the appropriate senator or representative," he said. "If you're in that kind of trouble and you need help from the state to address it to your district (representative) ... that mass emailing never works."

In other business, Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, discussed the Kansas Emergency Management Act.

The act makes some adjustments in the way emergencies are managed within the state, Jennings said. It ensures there's a system of checks and balances around present and future governors.

Governors still have the ability to immediately respond to an emerging disaster and impose executive orders, but there is a process for the executive orders to be reviewed by members of the Legislature where they can be amended or rejected, Jennings said.

If an order survives, there's a local decision-making process, as well where county commissions can have a say how things are handled in their community, if there needs to be any intervention based on the circumstances in the community. There's local control, Jennings said.

There were good compromises made on the bill, Jennings said. The governor, House or Senate didn't get everything each wanted, but each had something they didn't like — so it probably means the bill is just right.

"I do think it will still provide for the ability to respond as needed," he said. "It still has some checks and balances but also conveys the individuals the ability to petition the district court if they feel any of those involved have overstepped."

Twenty-five local residents attended the meeting in person while others participated on the Chamber's Facebook page.