TOPEKA, Kan. — Leaders of the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature on Monday agreed to create a committee to examine the impact of COVID-19 mandates and what they called government overreach, partly in response to Democratic President Joe Biden's federal vaccine requirements.
"We need to check the federal government pretty hard and stop them," said Senate Vice President Rick Wilborn, a Macpherson Republican.
One senior Democrat said the formation of such a committee would further politicize the pandemic. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and all state House members are up for reelection in 2022.
Republican Senate President Ty Masterson and Republican House Speaker Ron Ryckman will appoint the 11 committee members, who will meet for up to five days and hear public testimony.
Backlash came swiftly from Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, who said legislative leaders need to protect Kansans from COVID-19 and keep the economy growing.
"We've had 6,000 deaths in Kansas because of COVID and, you know, I just don't want this committee to politicize this anymore," Sykes said.
Masterson, an Andover Republican, responded: "The bad news is I don't think we can make it more political than the Biden administration has made it. So I'm with you on solutions."
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said the panel could also examine how the state can encourage Kansas residents to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance or get vaccinated.
Earlier this month, Biden unveiled new rules that mandate all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly.
The spread of the more-contagious delta variant has caused a surge in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Kansas for three months, stressing hospitals and causing outbreaks in schools, even as some parents and officials objected to mask mandates.
Kansas lags behind the national vaccination rate. The CDC reported Monday that 50.8% of the state's 2.9 million residents have been fully vaccinated, compared with 55.3% of the U.S. Five New England states had more than 67% of their residents fully vaccinated.
Who has authority to issue mandates has been debated throughout the pandemic in Kansas. Last year, Kelly ordered all K-12 buildings closed in mid-March for the rest of the spring semester to check the spread of the coronavirus. She also ordered a statewide stay-at-home order that closed businesses for five weeks starting March 30.
Last year, the Legislature passed and Kelly signed a law to give county officials authority to issue mask mandates and public health restrictions for businesses and public gatherings. It also gave legislative leaders the power to block the governor's executive orders and stripped appointed local health officers of their power to impose restrictions, leaving decisions to elected county commissions.
Kelly didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.