KC Star Op-Ed: Will Kansas counties hit hardest by COVID-19 get fair share of state’s federal aid?

By now, you’ve likely heard Kansas City is struggling to secure federal aid for its COVID-19 expenses.
In the coronavirus relief bill, Congress set aside $150 billion to help pay the pandemic costs incurred by state and local governments — overtime, salaries and supplies. Cities and counties with more than 500,000 people get their money directly from Washington, D.C., while smaller jurisdictions must bargain for their share.
Kansas City isn’t large enough to qualify for direct aid, so Mayor Quinton Lucas has had to badger others for a share of the relief money. It hasn’t gone well.
But this is not just an issue in Missouri. Kansas gets $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus aid and in the days ahead must decide if any of it will filter down to local governments.
Johnson County and Sedgwick counties are not worried. They’ll get their funds directly, since they’re big enough to meet the threshold for aid. Johnson County alone may get more than $100 million. But other Kansas jurisdictions — including Wyandotte County and Ford County, the two places hardest hit by the virus — get no direct funds at all.
You can thank Congress for this ongoing absurdity. Lawmakers set the 500,000 person threshold for political reasons. As a result, smaller cities and counties ravaged by COVID-19 must scrounge for funds.
But there’s a fix, and Kansas should pursue it. Policymakers from the governor’s office and the Legislature must ensure in the next two weeks that a sizable portion of the state’s $1.25 billion is sent to smaller cities and counties that need the money.
Missouri sent about 25% of its funding to counties. That’s a good start and should be the minimum in Kansas.
There will likely be a fight over this. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s office has said that cities and counties “will work through the state’s Recovery Office, which will be charged with the distribution of all CARES Act funding, including to local units of government.”

The governor recently appointed a chairperson for the Recovery Office, and has promised legislators will be a part of the board. But there has been no firm promise of money for local governments.
Kansas lawmakers are unlikely to be satisfied with that. Outgoing state Sen. Jim Denning said oversight of the $1.25 billion fund is his last and highest priority. Other lawmakers will likely insist on having a voice in where the money goes, including pass-through transfers to places such as Wyandotte County and Ford County.
“We should have a role,” Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman said in an email. “Our appropriations committee is meeting (soon) to discuss this.”
While legislative oversight is important, the last thing Kansas needs is a long fight over who controls the money and how much local governments should get. Remember: the $1.25 billion can’t be used to cover budget shortfalls or provide spending for non-COVID-19 expenses. It can only be spent on public costs related to the virus.
All sides must compromise, and quickly.
In other states, there have been disputes over this money. Some mayors believe the funds must be passed to cities and counties; others say it’s up the states. Kansas should avoid similar squabbles.
Congress should get to work on clarifying the legislation and making more direct aid available to local governments. There is no reason why mayors and county commissioners in Kansas should have to beg for cash to help their constituents.
In the meantime, Kansas lawmakers and the governor can ease the crisis in small communities. That work should be completed before the Legislature adjourns this month.