May 23, 2020 11:00 AM

Kan. lawmakers say governor overreacted to COVID-19

Posted May 23, 2020 11:00 AM
State Sen. John Skubal, an Overland Park Republican, waits out a long night in Topeka.-photo by Jim McLean -Kansas News Service
State Sen. John Skubal, an Overland Park Republican, waits out a long night in Topeka.-photo by Jim McLean -Kansas News Service

By Stephen Koranda, Kansas News Service

The Kansas Legislature worked for about 24 hours on a GOP-backed bill that pulls some emergency powers away from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. She has the ability to veto it, though has not said she'd do that directly.

TOPEKA, Kansas — In a one-day marathon session that wrapped up a legislative year upended by the coronavirus, Kansas lawmakers reined in the governor’s powers to respond to the public health crisis.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly sharply criticized the all-night rush that drafted the bill, but she stopped short of threatening a veto.

A wide-ranging bill that passed after sunrise Friday lets the governor’s emergency declaration — notably, the power to shut down businesses — extend through the end of May. After that, she’d need a panel of lawmakers to have it go longer.

And businesses that broke with the governor’s orders would face just civil penalties, rather than the misdemeanor criminal charges they'd currently face.

The Republican-controlled Legislature also passed protections for businesses against some lawsuits related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Meanwhile, efforts to expand Medicaid to cover the health care bills of another 130,000 or so people in the state evaporated for another year.

Lawmakers also didn’t adjust state spending to account for a dramatic drop in tax revenue — yet another effect of the economic shutdown triggered by the pandemic. A special session could bring legislators back to Topeka to balance the books, the governor could make cuts herself or any action may wait until next year.

Fears of spreading the coronavirus cut the first part of the session short. And ongoing concerns about infections resulted in a single, particularly contentious day that made clear the pandemic hasn't pushed aside partisan rivalries.

“It is our job to oversee this governor, to oversee her emergency orders,” Republican Senate President Susan Wagle said. “It is our job to open up Kansas safely.”

After some extended comments from a Democrat, the Senate’s Republican majority leader said he would use a procedural move to end debate and move bills forward as quickly as possible.

“I’m basically out of patience,” Sen. Jim Denning said.

The top Democrat in the Senate said the high-speed process, which ended in a vote Friday morning, meant lawmakers couldn’t have a full debate and offer amendments.

“We ought to close the blinds and turn out the lights because this is a dark day for democracy,” Sen. Anthony Hensley said.

And House Democratic Leader Tom Sawyer called the day "simply bad governing."

“This is no time for fulfilling political agendas,” Sawyer said.

Republicans argued they had little choice but to hurry bills through.

“This is the first time we’ve had a pandemic and had mere hours to come up with a solution,” Republican Rep. Fred Patton said.

Protesters rallied outside the Capitol to press Kelly and lawmakers to more quickly and fully open up the state’s economy. Their chants came as conservatives inside the Statehouse continued to criticize Kelly for what they see as a too-sluggish phasing out of her stay-at-home orders. Meanwhile, coronavirus clusters persist in southwest Kansas, where workers at meatpacking plants are in close quarters.

Lawmakers took precautions in the Statehouse, with some in the House and Senate wearing masks. The House allowed members to stay in their offices and return to the chamber for votes.

The governor’s powers

Kelly has clashed with some Republicans for weeks over her actions to control the coronavirus. Some lawmakers grew increasingly frustrated that many businesses were closed and that some have not yet been allowed to reopen. And they were upset that she put limits on the number of people who could gather for religious services just before Easter.

Lawmakers moved to put some limits and oversight on her authority. They voted to extend her disaster declaration through the end of May, but a panel of legislative leaders and the governor would need to approve any further extensions.

“Her emergency declarations apply to all of Kansas and there are counties that still have had no cases,” Wagle said.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt said just hours before lawmakers returned that Kelly may not have had the authority to issue a second emergency declaration after the first one expired.

Jim McLeanState Rep. Richard Prohel, a Republican from Parsons, listens to lobbyist John Federico.

Kelly’s office issued a statement early Friday morning, saying she was open to a discussion about changing the state’s emergency law. But it criticized the hasty effort to approve changes.

“Governor Kelly welcomes an honest conversation about the Kansas Emergency Management Act,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, this is not an honest conversation.”

COVID-19 details

Kelly has a few things to consider in a larger coronavirus response bill that the Legislature passed, too.

Legislative leaders would have oversight of the $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus aid for Kansas.

Health care providers would be protected from lawsuits over things like procedures that were delayed because of the pandemic.

And businesses would also have some protections against lawsuits over coronavirus infections unless they took reckless action. The bill also bars some product liability lawsuits.

The provisions were scaled back somewhat from what business groups initially requested.

Medicaid expansion falters ... again

The year started with high hopes from Medicaid expansion supporters. A bipartisan compromise forged by the governor and a top Senate Republican would have provided health coverage for more than 100,000 low-income Kansans.

But Republican leaders blocked Medicaid expansion after tying it to a constitutional amendment on abortion. That frustrated expansion supporters, who threatened to block the budget.

Democrats made a last-ditch effort in the Senate on Thursday to offer Medicaid expansion as an amendment. But that was shut down on procedural grounds.

“We have been bridled and throttled this entire year when the votes exist from this chamber to pass Medicaid expansion,” Democratic Sen. Barbara Bollier said. (She, like Wagle, is running for the U.S. Senate.) “We have the votes.”

Abortion constitutional amendment

A constitutional amendment saying there’s no right to abortion in the Kansas Constitution suffered the same fate as the Medicaid expansion plan it was tied to.

The amendment came in response to a state Supreme Court decision that found a right to abortion in the Kansas Constitution. Conservatives want to undo that with the amendment. They fear the court’s decision could pave the way for knocking down abortion restrictions already in state law.

Critics of the amendment say it could open the door to fully banning abortion in Kansas.

Jim McLeanState Rep. Kristey Williams, a Republican from Augusta, surrounded by colleagues.

Property tax provisions

Lawmakers voted to give taxpayers more information about their property tax rates. Cities and counties would have to send notices to residents when property tax collections will go up, starting next year. It also requires local governments to hold public hearings on tax rates.

Republican Sen. Caryn Tyson said it gives property taxpayers a better chance to weigh in on increases.

“The bill is about transparency,” she said. “It’s about local control, and it’s about taxpayers having a voice.”

The bill repeals a 2015 cap on property tax increases by local governments.

In response to the economic challenges caused by coronavirus, the plan also gives people three additional months to pay their May property taxes without penalty.

Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.