Defiant Senate leaders plan to press on with budget, other high-priority issues before adjourning session
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Kansas lawmakers fixated on passing a budget and other high-priority legislation before adjourning later this week as the peril of COVID-19 weighs upon decision makers.
House GOP leaders pressured their Senate counterparts to pass a budget and immediately adjourn while Senate leaders said they refuse to be rushed.
The Senate planned to debate and pass a budget Tuesday and work on other issues by Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Lawmakers then would return as scheduled April 27.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, delivered a speech to colleagues Monday in which she urged them not to let “fear of the unknown” compel them to make “irrational decisions.”
She said she was under tremendous pressure to shut the Legislature down in response to the health risks imposed by COVID-19.
“I hope all Kansans understand that I am not underestimating the terrible harm this virus can do, but we cannot react without understanding the implications,” Wagle said. “Health care workers, day care workers, people at nursing homes and hospitals, these people are on the front lines of this battle, fighting and literally risking their health to help others in need. If I expect those people to do their jobs, then we should be here to get our job done as well."
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said he supported the plan laid out by Senate Republicans.
"We don't want to be in such a hurry that we make mistakes, particularly on the budget,“ Hensley said.
On the House side, Republican and Democratic leadership identified as a top priority the passing of a base budget to provide stability to core government functions.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, of Olathe, Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, of Wichita, and Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, of Ottawa, said in a statement the House was prepared to take action on a budget on Monday if Senate counterparts were ready to negotiate any sticking points.
“As elected leaders,” the House Republicans said, “the first and only priority at this time is the health and safety of the citizens of Kansas. Our people come before partisanship and politics. We will continue to all pull together in this shared purpose.”
Rep. Owen Donohoe, R-Shawnee, told House GOP colleagues during a caucus meeting he was frustrated.
"A number of us, myself included, are medically predisposed," Donohoe said. "I'm medically at risk. Not only I, but there are others that are at risk. We should be making every attempt to get out of town. Instead, we find the other side across the hall is not doing that."
As the 75-year-old Donohoe spoke to the roughly 100 people packed into the meeting room, he said Senate leadership didn't have the sense of urgency felt by some House members.
"I'm not coming back until I have something to vote on,“ Donohoe said. ”I don't know why we should put our members at risk just to come in here and sit here like today and basically not get anything accomplished."
Ryckman said the House was prepared to work through this past weekend, but the Senate declined.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said the fundamental obligation of each legislative session was to pass a budget for the upcoming fiscal year starting July 1.
"I want us to pass a budget and break until April 27," he said. "No other bills. Everything else can wait."
On Friday, the House passed a resolution that would expand Gov. Laura Kelly’s authority to deal with the public health crisis by declaring a state of emergency through January 2021. The resolution would allow the state to draw down federal funding as it becomes available.
Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, raised concerns with the resolution because he was afraid the governor would use her broad powers under a state of emergency to impose restrictions on gun owners. State law blocks limits on gun sales, but Pyle was afraid Kelly would try to limit the sale of ammunition.
“There are real concerns with that,” Pyle said.
Wagle said she was preparing an amendment to address his concerns. The amendment “let’s you have alcoholic beverages, explosives and combustibles,” she said.
Hensley said Pyle was proposing “a conspiracy theory of the worst kind.”
“I think we're all in this thing together,” Hensley said. “We know we have a public health care crisis, and I wouldn't foresee the governor imposing any kind of restrictions of that nature.”
In addition to the budget, high-priority legislation includes a long-term transportation plan for funding highway projects, allowing college athletes to earn money for their name, image and likeliness, expansion of unemployment benefits, and consideration of executive reorganization orders sought by the governor.
By taking care of the those issues now, the Legislature could deviate from its schedule to adjourn from April 3 to April 27 and join virtually all other public institutions in temporarily shutting down to avoid rapid transmission of the coronavirus.
Kelly ordered a restraint on crowds of 50 or more and asked public schools to close this week. State universities extended spring break while preparing to move classes online. Libraries and restaurants have closed, sports, church services and events are canceled, and some businesses have asked employees to work from home. KDHE issued recommendations for anyone traveling to areas of widespread transmission of COVID-19 to quarantine themselves at home for 14 days.
As lawmakers press on, Capitol halls are largely silent with restrictions placed on visitors. Access is limited to individuals conducting official business, including legislative staff, lobbyists and news media. All public events and tours have been postponed until further notice.
At least 11 people in Kansas have tested positive for coronavirus, with numbers expected to multiply if they follow trends established in other areas.
“I will continue to have confidence in the leaders here in this chamber and in the people of Kansas, in parents, in health care workers, in day care workers, in teachers and in small and large business owners,” Wagle said. “And most of all, I will continue to have faith in God because I know if I follow his example, and serve to the best of my ability and operate on faith, not fear, we will get through this and the true courage of the Kansas spirit will prevail.”