May 21, 2020 8:00 PM

Kansas lawmakers push limits on governor's power

Posted May 21, 2020 8:00 PM
Kansas Senators meeting on Thursday morning photo courtesy Senate President Susan Wagle
Kansas Senators meeting on Thursday morning photo courtesy Senate President Susan Wagle

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republicans lawmakers in Kansas hashed out a plan Thursday night for limiting Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s power to direct the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic after the state’s GOP attorney general suggested Kelly’s been on “legally suspect” ground for three weeks.

Key provisions of the Republican plan would require Kelly to get permission from leaders of the GOP-controlled Legislature to keep businesses closed after May 31 or exercise other broad powers granted to governors during emergencies. Legislative leaders also would have the final say over how the state spends $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds.

The GOP’s bill also would provide some protection to businesses against being sued if their employees or customers contracted the coronavirus. Doctors, clinics and hospitals also would be protected from lawsuits if they delayed non-coronavirus health services because of the pandemic.

State Rep. Brandon Woodard Kansas House District 30 (Olathe and Lenexa) posted a photo to social media during the early hours Friday outside the Kansas Statehouse
State Rep. Brandon Woodard Kansas House District 30 (Olathe and Lenexa) posted a photo to social media during the early hours Friday outside the Kansas Statehouse

Republican leaders hoped to push the measure through the House and Senate by early Friday morning, over vocal opposition from Kelly’s fellow Democrats. Lawmakers convened Thursday for one final, extended day in session this year after a coronavirus-mandated break that began March 20.

People entering the Statehouse had their temperatures checked and were quizzed briefly about whether they’d had coronavirus symptoms before receiving red wrist bands that let them stay. Lawmakers’ social distancing grew lax over time; many Republicans did not wear masks, while most Democrats did.

The governor’s office issued a statement accusing GOP lawmakers of trying to “cram” through a package with measures that “have not been thoroughly vetted.” But the statement stopped short of saying she would veto Republicans’ bill.

Kelly is directing Kansas’ coronavirus response under a state of emergency in effect only through Memorial Day. Republican lawmakers hope she’ll accept limits on her power to avoid the risk of having the state of emergency end — and seeing 30 of her orders expire. Those orders include ones setting out how the state will reopen its economy, with some restrictions staying in place until June 23, as well as one preventing evictions for people who can’t pay their rent.

Republican leaders are frustrated that Kelly ordered many businesses closed under a statewide stay-at-home order in place from March 30 until May 4 and mandated a phased reopening of the economy. Many GOP lawmakers argue that Kelly is moving too slowly to reopen the economy, and they’re upset that different types of businesses face different restrictions. Their arguments reflect complaints from business owners.

“It is just time to open up with reasonable regulations,” said state Sen. Eric Rucker, a conservative Topeka attorney who helped draft much of the measure.

But Democrats were frustrated, too, by Republicans’ refusal to consider a bill simply extending the current state of emergency.

“This is nothing more than bushwacking,” Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said during an early round of talks.

Republicans said their proposals to shield health care providers and businesses from lawsuits would limit them to being sued for negligence or misconduct, such as in instances where businesses ignored public health guidelines. Critics said the protections were broader and would prevent them from being held accountable even in those instances.

Kelly has said she was open to proposals to protect health care providers, but their lobbyists feared such protections would be doomed when tied to proposals limiting her power. Rachelle Colombo, executive director of the Kansas Medical Society, decried “a lot of gamesmanship.”

“There’s a lot of question about what will become law at the end of the day,” she said.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt released a legal opinion late Wednesday saying Kelly did not have the authority to issue a second state of emergency declaration just before her first expired May 1. State law appeared to require Kelly to get legislative leaders’ approval to extend that second declaration past mid-May, and GOP leaders made sure it runs only through Monday.

Kansas has continued to see coronavirus cases rise to more than 8,500 as of Wednesday, but that’s recently been driven largely by outbreaks in meatpacking plants, a state prison in Lansing and in the Kansas City area. Twenty-one of the state’s 105 counties reported no cases as of Wednesday, and 48 had seen no new cases within two weeks.

Republicans wrangled over and then dropped a plan to limit statewide business closures to another 15 days and then let officials in each of the state’s 105 counties set their own rules. GOP senators briefly contemplated but ultimately didn’t push for a provision that might limit abortion services during the pandemic, which Kelly refused to do.

GOP leaders initially said they had to finish their work by midnight but then backed off when it became clear that it was not likely to happen.

In his legal opinion, Schmidt said the state’s emergency-management law is clear in allowing a governor to issue only one declaration during a single emergency. His opinion isn’t binding but Republicans cited it repeatedly Thursday.

Some Democrats argued that the law still gives the governor a duty to declare an emergency whenever one exists, even if a past declaration has expired. Kelly’s office sidestepped the issue for now.

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators convened Thursday for a single-day session on the coronavirus pandemic with Republican majorities determined to curb Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s power and the state’s GOP attorney general suggesting she’s been on “legally suspect” ground for three weeks.

Republican legislative leaders pushed a bill that would require Kelly to get the permission of top lawmakers to extend a state of emergency past Memorial Day. It also would greatly limiting her power to close businesses even with an extension and give legislative leaders the final say in how $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds are spent.

People entering the Statehouse had their temperatures checked and were quizzed briefly about whether they had coronavirus symptoms before receiving red paper bracelets permitting them to stay. Both chambers practiced some social distancing. Many Republicans didn’t wear masks during meetings, while most Democrats did.

Legislators have been on a coronavirus-mandated break since March 20 and Thursday was their last scheduled day to meet this year. Republican leaders are frustrated that Kelly ordered many businesses closed under a statewide stay-at-home order in place from March 30 until May 4 and mandated a phased reopening of the economy that keeps some restrictions until June 23.

“Our goal is to pass a package to allow us to have checks and balances,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said during a GOP caucus in which some lawmakers sat shoulder-to-shoulder without masks.

Kelly’s office said in a statement that GOP lawmakers were trying to “cram” multiple measures through the Legislature even though many “have not been thoroughly vetted by the public.”

Republicans also looked to help businesses by shielding them at least temporarily from lawsuits if business owners follow health guidelines and customers or employees get the novel coronavirus. They’re also looking to protect medical providers from coronavirus lawsuits. Critics worry that their efforts will prevent lawsuits for negligence or misconduct.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt released a legal opinion late Wednesday saying Kelly did not have the authority to issue a second state of emergency declaration just before her first expired May 1. State law appeared to require Kelly to get legislative leaders’ approval to extend that second declaration past mid-May, and GOP leaders made sure it runs only through Monday.

If lawmakers fail to act and the state of emergency expires, all of Kelly’s coronavirus orders would lapse, leaving decisions to each of the state’s 105 counties. Advocates for the poor are especially worried about losing a ban she imposed on evictions of people who can’t pay their rent.

Schmidt said the state’s emergency-management law is clear in allowing a governor to issue only one declaration during a single emergency.

Some Democrats argue that the law still gives the governor a duty to declare an emergency whenever one exists, whatever Schmidt’s opinion.

Gov. Laura Kelly met with President Trump at the White House Wednesday.-image courtesy CSPAN
Gov. Laura Kelly met with President Trump at the White House Wednesday.-image courtesy CSPAN

And Kelly’s office said the governor welcomes a discussion about rewriting emergency-management laws “in a thoughtful manner.”

“Unfortunately, this is not an honest conversation,” Kelly’s office said, citing Schmidt’s decision to release his opinion at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Schmidt has urged lawmakers to formally ratify Kelly’s past actions and extend the state of emergency, allowing her to tap broad emergency powers.

A Senate bill would ratify Kelly’s past actions and extend the current state of emergency — if legislative leaders sign off. It also would limit Kelly to keeping businesses closed only for 15 more days this year, allowing county officials to decide what restrictions are in place after that.

But senators were negotiating with House members Thursday afternoon over the measure’s final contents.

Many Republicans argue that Kelly is moving too slowly to reopen the economy, and they’re upset that different types of businesses face different restrictions.

GOP leaders were greatly influenced by committee testimony this week from Joy Eakins, the owner and president of the Cornerstone Data analysis firm in Wichita. She pointed to favorable trends in coronavirus hospitalization rates and COVID-19-related deaths over time and suggested those trends and other figures showed Kansas should leave decisions to local officials.

Kansas reported a 49% jump in coronavirus cases during the two weeks ending Wednesday, to more than 8,500, but that’s been driven largely by clusters of cases in meatpacking plants and a state prison in Lansing, as well as a persistent outbreak in the Kansas City area.

Twenty-one of the state’s 105 counties had reported no cases as of Wednesday, and 48 had seen no new cases within two weeks. Ninety counties have fewer than one case for every 1,000 residents.

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May 21, 2020 8:00 PM
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