TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Republican Kris Kobach promised Wednesday to push for tougher work requirements for welfare and state health coverage recipients in Kansas, building on existing policies that have populist appeal but draw criticism as punitive toward the poor.
Kobach outlined a plan to increase work requirements for able-bodied adults receiving food stamps and cash assistance. It would impose a work requirement — and drug testing — for the state's Medicaid program, which provides health coverage to the needy.
The GOP-controlled Legislature enacted work requirements and tougher rules for food stamps and cash assistance in 2015 and 2016 at former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's urging. Like him, Kobach argues that such requirements encourage people to work and increase the number moving from government assistance to employment.
Kobach said a strong economy creates an ideal time to pursue further changes. He said with unemployment low — it was 3.3 percent in Kansas in August — employers are struggling to fill jobs.
"There's no excuse for an able-bodied adult to be collecting welfare on the back of hard-working Kansans," Kobach said during a news conference.
President Donald Trump's administration has given states the go-ahead to impose Medicaid work requirements, and Arkansas was the first, this year; a federal judge blocked a requirement in Kentucky. Wisconsin imposed a new work requirement for food stamps this year.
Kobach is in a dead heat with Democratic nominee Laura Kelly, a veteran state senator from Topeka. She opposed the 2015 and 2016 laws and criticized them during a debate Tuesday.
Advocates for the poor argue that such policies merely deny benefits, and the number of Kansas cash assistance recipients is 75 percent lower than seven years ago. Kelly said the past policies "ruined families."
"None of these policies outlined by Kris Kobach will save money," Kelly said in a statement. "In fact, they will cost the state of Kansas far more."
Independent candidate Greg Orman, a Kansas City-area businessman, said programs should promote "upward mobility and accountability." But he added that Kobach's plan "would have unintended consequences that he clearly hasn't thought through."
Kansas requires able-bodied adults receiving food stamps and cash assistance to work at least 20 hours a week, look for work or enroll in job training.
The 2015 law also tells families that they can't use cash assistance to attend concerts, get tattoos, see a psychic or buy lingerie, with the list of don'ts running to several dozen items. Kobach strongly supports the rule.
His proposal would increase the work requirement for cash assistance and food stamps to 30 hours a week for able-bodied adults without children and impose a 30-hour requirement for Medicaid. He also would impose drug testing for food stamp recipients.
And, he said, he would require the state to verify electronically that recipients of food stamps, cash assistance and Medicaid coverage live in the U.S. legally.
His proposals appealed to Josephine Lemus, a 68-year-old substitute teacher's aide from Topeka and registered Republican. She told Kobach during his news conference that she and her nine brothers and sisters were "raised on welfare" by her mother and, "our self-esteem was so bad."
"She was smart, but she had no confidence," Lemus said.