By Jonathan Shorman

When Gov. Laura Kelly's administration said in June it planned to allow thousands of Kansans to remain on welfare without meeting work requirements, Republicans relentlessly attacked the policy.

On Thursday, Kelly backed down.

The Democratic governor abandoned the effort just one day before a deadline set by Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt. He had threatened legal action if Kelly didn't drop the plan.

The decision means some 5,500 adults without children will not have food assistance in July, August and September.

It also marks a defeat for Kelly, who is a staunch opponent of welfare work rules placed into law years ago under Gov. Sam Brownback.

"While my team believes the policy we put in place is legally defensible, we have determined that it isn't worth the cost to Kansas taxpayers to engage in a protracted court battle," Kelly said at a news conference.

She vowed to pursue changes to the law that would give her greater power to set welfare policy.

"How unfortunate that the attorney general saw fit to embrace such a mean-spirited position, rather than acknowledge the good we were trying to achieve in helping those less fortunate," she said.

In a statement, Schmidt called the decision a "victory for the rule of law." He didn't directly respond to Kelly's comments.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican who is considering a run for U.S. Senate, said Kelly's desire to expand welfare to adults without children who can work is "repulsive to hardworking Kansas taxpayers."

Under federal law, able-bodied adults without children can't receive food assistance for more than three months every three years if they don't work at least 20 hours a week. However, the U.S. government provides exemptions that states can use to waive the work requirements for some recipients.

On May 17, the Department for Children and Families directed employees to allow people who haven't followed the work requirements to receive assistance during the final three months of the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The agency had planned to draw from the 58,000 exemptions it has accumulated. Extending benefits for three months would have required using about 16,500 of the exemptions. Officials said the action would have been a one-time occurrence.

Republican leaders accused Kelly of breaking the law, and the state party used the controversy for fundraising.

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, who has been the most vocal opponent of the policy, called the state's welfare law a success and said the governor had attempted to sweep unlawful activity under the rug.

"I am confident that Kansans understand the value of work requirements and upholding the rule of law. The Governor may try to change the subject, but she was breaking the law and the Attorney General deserves our thanks for holding her accountable," the Wichita Republican said in a statement.

The reaction against the policy from Republican leaders illustrates the challenges Kelly faces in changing the state's welfare law. But she says she can work with other lawmakers to make progress.

"My intent will be to work with the rank-and-file legislature and work toward making some of these changes," Kelly said.

The Republican-controlled Legislature approved, and Brownback signed, bills in 2015 and 2016 restricting access to assistance. Attempts to change the law since then have not advanced very far.

Kansas reduced the number of months someone can be in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to 24 months from 36 months. The lifetime limit for the program was cut to three years from four.

Over time, enrollment in welfare dropped. Supporters of the restrictions said they pushed people to seek jobs but critics said the changes just kicked vulnerable people off of assistance.

On Thursday, Kelly left open the possibility of taking unilateral action on welfare in the future.

"I don't have anything in mind right now," Kelly said. "But you can trust that we are looking, doing a deep dive on all policy. And where there are things that we can change by executive order, we'll do that if it's in the best interest of Kansans."

(c)2019 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)