Jun 19, 2020

INSIGHT KANSAS: The democratic costs of Covid-19 in Kansas

Posted Jun 19, 2020 10:30 AM
<i>Professor Russell Arben Fox directs the History &amp; Politics major and the Honors program at Friends University in Wichita.</i>
Professor Russell Arben Fox directs the History & Politics major and the Honors program at Friends University in Wichita.

It’s been around 100 days since the covid-19 pandemic officially arrived in Kansas, bringing fears both physical and economic to every corner of the state. What have we learned?

On the positive side, we know that the dramatic precautions of closing businesses and schools likely made a big difference: the number of Kansas’s coronavirus-related deaths and active cases are less than many were worryingly predicting back in mid-March.

But on the negative side, we also know that our elected leaders did not fully rise to meet the divisiveness and confusion which the pandemic brought with it. Instead, the past three months saw many in Topeka, for different reasons, either acquiescing to a distrust in the democratic process–or in some unfortunate cases, actively promoting it.

Consider Gov. Laura Kelly. She initially took dramatic action to prevent the spread of possible sources of contagion. Her regular communications with voters and legislators, patient commitment to scientific evidence, and carefully designed re-opening plans received wide praise.

But Kelly also failed to engage the conspiratorial drumbeats that have grown deafening in the more rural parts of the state, where case numbers are low. Her effort to ensure that restrictions on public gatherings applied to churches was a political backfire. Rather than working to encourage the legislature to continue to meet remotely and move forward, she watched as some legislators abandoned all pretense of governing, committing themselves solely to limiting her power.

After vetoing a clumsy effort by the Republican-led state legislature to restrict her authority, Kelly called an emergency session and, without debate, agreed to a compromise that left public health decisions almost solely in the hands of local county commissions. Now she is looking at the varied trajectories of cases across the state (the numbers from Sedgwick County are particularly worrisome), watching some of her good work become undone.

Kelly’s failure to challenge the panicked distrust in legislative debate that often characterized Topeka this spring was bad; Kansas State Senate President Susan Wagle’s embrace of it, though, was worse. Determined to make the jump from the legislature to the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, Wagle decided that rallying pro-life voters, through putting an anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution on the August primary ballot, was her ticket. She kept that determination in front of everything else, preventing productive debate not just over Medicaid expansion but a dozen other issues as well, as the pandemic broke and raged through the state. 

In the end, this encouraged unwillingness of enough of our legislators to demand real discussion and proper votes in the face of the coronavirus threat backfired, killing Wagle’s hopes for the proposed amendment. Worse, it left the state of Kansas without a clear path forward. Will the covid numbers we are currently seeing require yet another emergency clash between the governor and the legislature? If so, how might that one go, given the precedent which was set this spring?

None of Kansas’s legislators could have anticipated the challenging responsibilities the pandemic has forced upon them. Still, the responsibilities are theirs; such is our representative system. We can only hope the irresponsible lessons of this spring will be forgotten in the summer to come.

Professor Russell Arben Fox directs the History & Politics major and the Honors program at Friends University in Wichita.