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Kansas AG Doubts Governor’s Orders As Lawmakers Seek Limits

Stephen Koranda
Kansas News Service/File photo

Kansas legislators convened Thursday for a single-day session on the coronavirus pandemic with Republican majorities determined to curb Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s power and the state’s GOP attorney general suggesting she’s been on “legally suspect” ground for three weeks.

Republican legislative leaders pushed a bill that would require Kelly to get the permission of top lawmakers to extend a state of emergency past Memorial Day. It also would greatly limiting her power to close businesses even with an extension and give legislative leaders the final say in how $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds are spent.

People entering the Statehouse had their temperatures checked and were quizzed briefly about whether they had coronavirus symptoms before receiving red paper bracelets permitting them to stay. Both chambers practiced some social distancing. Many Republicans didn’t wear masks during meetings, while most Democrats did.

Legislators have been on a coronavirus-mandated break since March 20 and Thursday was their last scheduled day to meet this year. Republican leaders are frustrated that Kelly ordered many businesses closed under a statewide stay-at-home order in place from March 30 until May 4 and mandated a phased reopening of the economy that keeps some restrictions until June 23.

“Our goal is to pass a package to allow us to have checks and balances,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said during a GOP caucus in which some lawmakers sat shoulder-to-shoulder without masks.

Kelly’s office said in a statement that GOP lawmakers were trying to “cram” multiple measures through the Legislature even though many “have not been thoroughly vetted by the public.”

Republicans also looked to help businesses by shielding them at least temporarily from lawsuits if business owners follow health guidelines and customers or employees get the novel coronavirus. They’re also looking to protect medical providers from coronavirus lawsuits. Critics worry that their efforts will prevent lawsuits for negligence or misconduct.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt released a legal opinion late Wednesday saying Kelly did not have the authority to issue a second state of emergency declaration just before her first expired May 1. State law appeared to require Kelly to get legislative leaders’ approval to extend that second declaration past mid-May, and GOP leaders made sure it runs only through Monday.

If lawmakers fail to act and the state of emergency expires, all of Kelly’s coronavirus orders would lapse, leaving decisions to each of the state’s 105 counties. Advocates for the poor are especially worried about losing a ban she imposed on evictions of people who can’t pay their rent.

Schmidt said the state’s emergency-management law is clear in allowing a governor to issue only one declaration during a single emergency.

Some Democrats argue that the law still gives the governor a duty to declare an emergency whenever one exists, whatever Schmidt’s opinion.

And Kelly’s office said the governor welcomes a discussion about rewriting emergency-management laws “in a thoughtful manner.”

“Unfortunately, this is not an honest conversation,” Kelly’s office said, citing Schmidt’s decision to release his opinion at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Schmidt has urged lawmakers to formally ratify Kelly’s past actions and extend the state of emergency, allowing her to tap broad emergency powers.

A Senate bill would ratify Kelly’s past actions and extend the current state of emergency — if legislative leaders sign off. It also would limit Kelly to keeping businesses closed only for 15 more days this year, allowing county officials to decide what restrictions are in place after that.

But senators were negotiating with House members Thursday afternoon over the measure’s final contents.

Many Republicans argue that Kelly is moving too slowly to reopen the economy, and they’re upset that different types of businesses face different restrictions.

GOP leaders were greatly influenced by committee testimony this week from Joy Eakins, the owner and president of the Cornerstone Data analysis firm in Wichita. She pointed to favorable trends in coronavirus hospitalization rates and COVID-19-related deaths over time and suggested those trends and other figures showed Kansas should leave decisions to local officials.

Kansas reported a 49% jump in coronavirus cases during the two weeks ending Wednesday, to more than 8,500, but that’s been driven largely by clusters of cases in meatpacking plants and a state prison in Lansing, as well as a persistent outbreak in the Kansas City area.

Twenty-one of the state’s 105 counties had reported no cases as of Wednesday, and 48 had seen no new cases within two weeks. Ninety counties have fewer than one case for every 1,000 residents.

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