TOPEKA — A National Governors Association political action committee has filed an ethics complaint following an attempt to derail their attack ad targeting Democratic Governor Laura Kelly for allegedly dropping an adult requirement in 2019 working part-time, looking for a job or taking vocational training to qualify for food stamps and other assistance.
Kelly campaign attorneys Courtney Weisman and Jonathan Berkon urged Kansas television stations to reject the RGA’s ad because it falsely claimed the governor “stopped” enforcing a rule that able-bodied adults had to earn their food stamps and cash assistance. The governor’s re-election campaign argued that the Kelly administration was considering a policy change, but changes to eligibility rules were not implemented due to criticism from the GOP.
The complaint filed with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission and signed by the executive director of the NGA in Washington, D.C., argued that a Cabinet Secretary in the Kelly administration should not have introduced into the debate a letter documenting the history of agency compliance with welfare eligibility rules. The secretary’s letter was relied on – wrongly, NGA said – by the Kelly campaign in an effort to convince broadcast stations KSNT and KTKA to pull the NGA ad.
The complaint said Laura Howard, secretary of the Kansas Department of Children and Families, wrongly provided the Kelly campaign with a memo on official DCF letterhead. It’s not clear that Howard knew how the governor’s office or his campaign would use the one-page letter.
“Unfortunately for Kelly, no matter how much she misuses state resources and taxpayer-funded personnel to help her political campaign, we will continue to hold her accountable and voters will reject her in November.” , said RGA spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez.
The RGA is engaged in the campaign to become governor of Kansas on behalf of Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is seeking the Republican nomination to run against Kelly.
“It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the RGA is lying about Governor Kelly’s strong track record. It is this type of campaign that the Kansans despise,” said Lauren Fitzgerald, spokesperson for the Kelly campaign.
Howard’s letter to Will Lawrence, the Democratic governor’s chief of staff, said the DCF had not relaxed rules to extend food stamp benefits to unqualified adults in 2019 or 2020.
RGA officials claimed, but did not provide evidence, that Kelly and Lawrence forced Howard into the political dispute. Under Kansas law, RGA staff said, Kansas state employees could not be compelled to engage in political activities. Kansas law also states that state agents or employees cannot use public funds or time to expressly defend a candidate’s nomination, election or defeat, the RGA said.
The Associated Press ran a story in December 2018 that said Kelly wanted to “roll back the cash aid rules.” Kelly was not sworn in until January 2019. An article published by The Wichita Eagle in July 2019 reported that the attorney general had given Kelly a deadline to “drop (his) welfare plan.” A later Wichita Eagle story stated Kelly dropped the idea of welfare eligibility reform due to concerns expressed by Republicans and the potential for a costly legal battle.
Howard’s memo said a DCF document released on July 11, 2019 stated that discretionary work warrant exemptions would not apply to welfare recipients. This document overruled an earlier DCF memo indicating that the goal was to use limited exemptions.
“To claim that Governor Kelly has ‘stopped’ requiring healthy adults to seek work while receiving social benefits is simply untrue,” Kelly’s campaign attorneys said in a letter to broadcasters. “You have a duty to protect the public from false, misleading or deceptive advertising.
Jessica Furst Johnson, a lawyer for the RGA’s political action committee, said in correspondence to television outlets that the Kelly campaign should not be allowed to “infringe on the PAC’s right to speak by misrepresenting claims and making up an alternate reality in an effort to carefully curate what Kansans see on the air.
The RGA ad was a response to Kelly’s campaign ad outlining how she brought Republicans and Democrats together to produce a record budget surplus, fully fund K-12 public education, and implement a program to repair highways in Kansas.
“Like most Kansans, I’m neither too right nor too left,” Kelly said, speaking from a road in Auburn near Topeka. “Amazing what you can do when you govern from the middle.”
The RGA’s Political Action Committee rebuttal ad raised objections to Kelly’s vetoes of tax legislation and bills requiring boys or men to participate in school or college sports based on their gender at the birth.
“She’s stopped requiring healthy adults to look for work while receiving welfare checks,” the NGA ad’s voiceover said. “Under Laura Kelly, our families face a difficult road.”