Governor's aide: GOP plan may slow Kansas emergency response

Kansas capitol
Posted at 4:28 PM, Feb 25, 2021

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A top aide to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly warned Republican legislators Thursday that a proposal to curb the power of the governor and other Kansas officials could seriously hamper the state's response to future public health emergencies and urged them to extend a state of emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Will Lawrence, Kelly's chief of staff, objected to key portions of a bill from the state Senate's top Republicans that would rewrite the state's emergency management laws. The Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed it Thursday as another committee considered requiring all public schools to offer in-person classes by March 26 and after the House approved a measure designed to manage a backlog of criminal cases caused by courts' inability to hold trials because of the pandemic.

Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature have criticized Kelly's handling of the pandemic for months. They forced her last year to accept local control requiring masks and restricting businesses in exchange for keeping a state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic in place.

The special rules lawmakers set for COVID-19 and the state of emergency that broadens officials' power temporarily are set to expire March 31, and legislators also are working on measures that will determine how state and local officials can respond to future health emergencies. Under the Senate Judiciary Committee's measure, a governor could not issue executive orders without first consulting the state's attorney general and getting approval from a new legislative committee likely to be dominated by Republicans.

"It's going to be a problem," Lawrence said. "The emergency has to be dealt with quickly and swiftly, and this feels different."

The measure would not extend the existing pandemic state of emergency, and Lawrence said doing so is crucial to dealing with COVID-19 problems and distributing vaccines. But top GOP senators have said they'd like the state of emergency to expire by April, and they have the support of fellow conservatives who want to end any remaining local restrictions on businesses.

"When will it be over?" said Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican. "I've got a lot constituents who are asking the same thing, who want to get their businesses back to normal."

Thompson incorrectly asserted that the number of new cases in Kansas is as low as it was in June 2020, when the state averaged 157 a day. While new cases have declined sharply in recent weeks, so far this month, the state has averaged 647 new cases a day, according to health department data. Kansas also has averaged 38 new COVID-19 deaths per day this month.

"We still have a ways to go," Norman told the committee.

The bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee would create special rules for public health emergencies, as opposed to shorter-term natural disasters such as tornadoes.

But as an example, Lawrence said a radiation leak at the state's only nuclear power plant, about 60 miles south of Topeka, would be a public health emergency. He said the governor could be forced to wait two days before ordering an evacuation of people living near it.

Republicans argued that the attorney general and the legislative committee would act immediately in such a case.

Meanwhile, the Senate Education Committee wrestled with whether public K-12 schools should be required to offer in-person classes to all students by March 26. It had a hearing on a bill proposed by Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican.

But according to State Department of Education data, only five of the state's 286 local school districts don't expect to have a majority of students back for in-person classes by then. Kelly announced last week that Kansas was putting a priority on inoculating its 34,000 teachers and 72,000 K-12 staff members so that all of them could return to in-person classes.

The House voted 107-17 in favor of the bill dealing with the courts' backlog of some 5,000 criminal cases, sending it to the Senate. The measure would suspend until May 2024 a state law protecting defendants' constitutional right to a speedy trial by imposing deadlines for hearing their cases.

Supporters say that if the state doesn't act, judges could be forced to dismiss hundreds of cases because courts can't meet the deadlines.

But the measure also faces bipartisan skepticism in the Senate from members who worry that a three-year suspension of the deadlines is too long and will leave too many defendants languishing in jail. The speedy trial law generally requires cases to go to trial within six months of a defendant entering a plea to criminal charges.