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TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly is expected to decide by Tuesday whether to veto or sign into law the complex bill outlining Republicans’ new vision for controlling the Democratic governor’s statewide emergency orders and her dispersal of federal COVID-19 funding.
The 2020 Legislature approved the mega-bill to restrain Kelly’s gubernatorial authority by doing away with her power to unilaterally implement emergency directives and stripping her of leadership in directing $1.25 billion in federal aid tied to the pandemic.
Kelly didn’t reveal at a news conference Friday what she planned to do with House Bill 2054, but said the measure would "dramatically weaken Kansas’ ability to fight COVID-19."
If she opts for a veto, the governor would likely issue a new state of emergency declaration. The move could lead to filing of lawsuits over executive authority, intervention of the Kansas Supreme Court and, depending on the court’s decision, calling of a special session of the Legislature.
Kelly’s current emergency declaration expires at midnight Tuesday. The newly passed bill would extend the statewide emergency to May 31 and let the governor seek 30-day extensions from the State Finance Council, which includes the governor and eight legislators.
AG: Sign it
Attorney General Derek Schmidt recommended Kelly sign the bill because he said it offered a balanced approach to guiding the state through the pandemic.
"Kansans have risen to this COVID-19 challenge and sacrificed for the health and safety of their fellow citizens, and now is the time to move from the initial emergency response to a sustained and cautious recovery effort," the attorney general said. "Having now preliminarily reviewed the COVID-19 relief bill passed by the Legislature, I consider it a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to fixing many specific problems that need immediate attention."
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported testing showed 8,958 Kansans to have been infected with COVID-19. KDHE also said 787 had been hospitalized with the virus and 185 infected individuals had died.
Kelly is in the midst of a phased reopening of the Kansas economy, the pace of which depends on sustained lowering of fatalities, hospitalizations and infections. Testing in Kansas has been expanded statewide to track spread of infection.
Limits on governor
The bill on Kelly’s desk would retain the governor’s ability to issue emergency orders during the pandemic, but county officials would be free to adopt less-restrictive rules.
The governor could close businesses for 15 days, but extensions would be subject to State Finance Council approval.
The $1.25 billion in emergency aid forwarded by Congress to Kansas would be funneled through the Legislature, rather than handled exclusively by the executive branch.
In addition, the bill would lower the penalty for violating a governor’s executive order from a criminal infraction to a civil offense. Prosecutors could seek fines up to $2,500, but no jail time.
The Legislature also passed liability protection to companies that might be sued for COVID-19 infection of employees or customers. It would ratify orders issued by Kelly to increase use of telemedicine, temporarily ease health licensing regulations and allow video conferencing in court.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican running for U.S. Senate, said a veto of the comprehensive COVID-19 bill by Kelly would be a "self-serving politically motivated injustice to Kansans."
’Far from perfect’
Alan Cobb, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Chamber, said the final day of the legislative session running without a break from 8 a.m. Thursday to 8 a.m. Friday was "unlike any other in recent history."
Work by legislators during the all-nighter to reset executive power of the Kansas governor will strengthen the state’s response to both the health emergency and economic crisis, Cobb said.
"While far from perfect from her view and ours, enacting HB 2054 is vital to multiple interests across the state and will give all Kansans confidence our state is on the path of both health and economic recovery," Cobb said.
He urged Kelly to sign other bills waiving penalties and interest for late property tax payments and providing greater transparency to changes in local government property tax revenue. He recommended she sign a measure creating a $60 million loan program for small businesses struggling in the pandemic.
Kansas governors are given 10 days to determine whether to sign or veto a bill. If a governor refuses to act, legislation automatically becomes law after that period.
The 2020 legislative session was abruptly halted in mid-March as the virus spread in the United States. House and Senate leaders decided to return for a single day to wrap up their work. They chose to come back on "sine die," the scheduled ceremonial day marking end of the session.
In advance of convening Thursday, Senate Republican leaders insisted they were prohibited from working past midnight on sine die. They abandoned that line of thought and remained in session until dawn Friday to push across the finish line seven bills, including House Bill 2054.
Kelly said there were "serious constitutional and legal questions" about legislation adopted during the 24-hour session at the Capitol.
"One thing is clear," she said. "They had a deadline, and they didn’t meet it. It was an unprecedented and outstanding demonstration of the dysfunction of our Legislature unlike anything I saw in my years serving in the state Senate."