TOPEKA — A bill giving Kansas lawmakers some oversight of the state's coronavirus response cleared the House on Wednesday night and is headed to the Senate.
The Legislature convened for a special session called by Kelly after she vetoed a sweeping coronavirus bill GOP lawmakers approved in May moments before adjourning their annual session. That measure would have curbed Kelly’s power to direct the state’s pandemic response; given legislative leaders the final say over how $1.25 billion in federal relief funds are spent; and protected businesses, medical providers and nursing homes from lawsuits.
Her staff and top Republicans have been negotiating since then. GOP lawmakers unveiled a new plan Tuesday that also would give legislators oversight of spending, prevent coronavirus-related lawsuits and limit Kelly's ability to close businesses statewide this fall and winter. The vote in the House was 107-12.
Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican, said “the majority” of the first bill is “still intact.”
But the details are different enough that Kelly said Wednesday that she supports the measure and it “will provide the framework our state needs as we continue on the path to recovery.”
The House debated the new measure first, and GOP leaders faced resistance from fellow Republicans who didn't like some of the compromises necessary to get Kelly's support. Top Republicans urged rank-and-filed GOP lawmakers to accept the new plan as written, with House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, telling them in a meeting, “Something is better than nothing."
Later, Will Lawrence, Kelly's chief of staff met with House Democrats and urged them to accept the plan.
“It's been a delicate negotiation and it won't take much to tip it out of kilter,” said Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican.
Kansas law gives the governor broad power in an emergency but requires legislative approval to extend a state of emergency past 15 days. The current state of emergency ends June 10, and Kelly called the special session to get it extended.
The governor was locked for weeks in a dispute with top Republicans who argue that she has restricted businesses too much. When she vetoed the first coronavirus measure, she dropped all remaining statewide restrictions and gave the state's 105 counties the power to set the rules.
Republicans’ new coronavirus measure would extend the state of emergency until Sept. 15 and into late January 2021 if legislative leaders agree. Legislative leaders would have a say in whether businesses statewide are forced to close again, but the restrictions on Kelly are not as tough as in the bill she vetoed.
Kelly would have to get top lawmakers’ approval of her plans to distribute federal relief funds. The bill she vetoed contained a similar requirement but also moved the money into the Legislature's budget from the governor's office budget. An economic recovery team appointed by Kelly proposed Tuesday that $400 million go to cities and counties to cover coronavirus costs.
In vetoing Republicans’ first bill, Kelly argued that provisions meant to head off coronavirus-related lawsuits went too far. The first bill protected medical personnel, businesses and nursing homes, and the second bill narrows the protections, for nursing homes in particular.
Advocates of expanding the state's Medicaid coverage for the needy hoped to have an expansion included in the coronavirus bill. Kelly has pushed for Medicaid expansion since taking office in January 2019 but it's been blocked by GOP conservatives.
Some Democrats also wanted to tackle a new issue: ensuring that workers who contract the coronavirus on the job are entitled to workers compensation benefits to cover medical expenses and lost wages.
State officials and attorneys who represent injured workers said such benefits aren’t allowed now. Because states have separate systems for reviewing claims from injured workers, they aren't allowed to go to court if they can't get benefits.
Some Republicans are wary because expanding benefits for workers will cost employers. Most businesses have insurance to cover such costs, but their premiums are based on the benefits they have paid to workers. They also worry that it will be difficult to determine how a worker got infected — opening businesses up to pay benefits even if it was off the job.