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Kansas lawmakers mull governor's power, closing businesses

Kansas lawmakers open special session on schools
Posted at 4:32 PM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-03 17:32:58-05

TOPEKA, Kan. — Conservative Republican lawmakers argued Wednesday that Kansas shouldn't be able shut down businesses during an emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic as the GOP-controlled Legislature considered how far to go in restricting a governor's power in future emergencies.

The state House gave first-round approval on a voice vote to a bill that would require governors to confer with the state's attorney general and get legislative leaders' approval before issuing executive orders during a state of emergency. Some Republicans are still upset over actions Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly took last spring to close K-12 schools and businesses and want to go further in restricting governors' power.

House members expected to take another, final vote Thursday on its bill. If it passed then, it would go to the Senate, which has approved its own measure. The final version of a bill rewriting the state's emergency management laws will be drafted by negotiators for the two chambers.

The Senate approved, 26-12 a bill pushed by its top Republican, President Ty Masterson, to require all of the state's 286 local school districts to offer in-person classes to all students by March 26. Masterson, from Andover, and other GOP senators said they are helping the many students who haven't fared well academically or emotionally with online classes, but the State Department of Education said only a handful of districts don't plan to have a majority students back in their buildings by the bill's deadline.

Democrats decried the schools bill as an unnecessary attack on local control of schools, though they largely backed Kelly's decision in March 2020 to shut down all K-12 buildings through the end of the spring semester. They criticized the House bill as likely to slow down the state's responses to future disasters.

"You need somebody in charge and you need somebody who can act quickly," said Democratic state Rep. Pam Curtis, of Kansas City, Kansas.

House Republicans argued that they're striking a balance, making sure that there's some check on the governor, who generally has broad powers after declaring a state of emergency. Kelly imposed a statewide stay-at-home order last spring for five weeks, but GOP lawmakers later forced her to accept local control over mask mandates and restrictions on businesses and public gatherings to keep the COVID-19 state of emergency in place.

The Senate GOP's bill would not only curtail the governor's power but prevent locally appointed health officers from issuing orders, leaving decisions to elected county or city officials. Some conservative Republicans wanted to go farther and ban business closures or even restrictions but acknowledged Kelly would never sign such legislation.

Rep. Randy Garber, a conservative Sabetha Republican who doesn't wear a mask, said business owners operate with common sense and will know when to close or impose safety measures during future pandemics.

"These people have put their lives' work in the business," Garber said. "We, as a legislative body, county commissioners, cities, should not have the right to close those businesses - for any reason."

The latest debate over the governor's power came as the state continued to see a decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases. Kansas averaged 325 new confirmed and probable cases a day for the seven days ending Wednesday, its lowest rolling seven-day average in eight months, according to state Department of Health and Environment data.

The state health department added 807 new cases since Monday to its total for the nearly yearlong pandemic, bringing it to 295,109, or one case for every 10 of the state's 2.9 million residents. The department also reported an additional 73 deaths since Monday, to bring the pandemic total to 4,816.

Republican legislators also have repeatedly criticized the Democratic governor's administration over what they view as a slow distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. As that debate continued in recent weeks, hundreds of people working at the Statehouse were offered inoculations outside the state's tiers of distribution.

They included lawmakers, their research, bill-drafting and auditing staffs and their assistants and secretaries. The offers also extended to security and housekeeping staffs.

Reporters were offered shots in a Feb. 22 email from the Department of Health and Environment, which stressed that the same offer was not available to the general public. Reporters for The Associated Press did not accept shots.

Tom Day, the director of Legislative Administrative Services, put the number of people offered inoculations at between 500 and 600. State officials did not have numbers on how many people at the Statehouse received the shots.

The governor's office did not explain where the Statehouse workers fit into the tiers of the vaccine distribution plan. But Reeves Oyster, a spokeswoman for Gov. Laura Kelly, said people were offered shots as part of a plan to preserve the continuity of government operations or because their jobs were considered "high-risk."

"Everyone in the Statehouse has been offered the vaccine," Oyster said.