TOPEKA - After a day-long wrap-up session, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed sweeping legislation early Friday, May 22, that limits the governor’s emergency powers.
The measure also shifts control of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic from the governor to legislative leaders – including appropriations of federal funding.
Senate Substitute for HB 2054 limits Gov. Laura Kelly’s powers by making her seek approval from the State Finance Council to proclaim new coronavirus-related emergencies.
The legislation also prevents the governor from closing businesses or curtailing commercial activity for more than 15 days. Kelly would have to seek approval from the State Finance Council to extend it an additional 30 days.
The bill allows county commissions, after consultation with local health officials, to impose less restrictive health orders than those outlined in the governor’s plan to reopen the state.
The bill also protects healthcare providers and businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits.
The Legislature also extended the governor’s emergency declaration through the end of May but stopped well short of covering the timeline for the governor's plan to reopen the state, which runs into late June.
In her COVID-19 briefing Friday, Gov. Kelly told reporters she and her team would evaluate all the legislation passed during the wrap-up session before she decides to sign a bill or veto it.
Gov. Kelly said she welcomes an honest conversation about the Kansas Emergency Management Act (KEMA) that addresses a governor's powers during state emergencies. But she categorized the Legislature’s all-night session in which GOP-led lawmakers “crammed” through several pieces of legislation that were not properly vetted as “simply indefensible from start to finish.”
She also was critical of Attorney General Derek Schmdit for issuing an opinion in the middle of the night right before the last day of the session about her last emergency declaration. Schmidt categorized the constitutionality of the declaration as “doubtful.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, described the day-long session as “unprecedented hard work done by her legislative partners on behalf of Kansans.”
In a statement to the media, Wagle said, “Governor Laura Kelly and her legislative allies pulled out all the stops to prevent the Legislature from coming back. She wanted to keep control of her emergency powers for as long as possible so she can continue to pick winners and losers."
Wagle and other Republican leaders have criticized the way the governor has handled the health crisis and said that she has been slow to reopen the state.
“The Legislature met with openness and transparency,” Wagle said. “They debated and passed legislation that stands up for small businesses and workers across the state.”
Wagle continued, “A federal judge has reined in Governor Kelly. Attorney General Schmidt has weighed in to limit her authority. The people have spoken through their elected representatives. Governor Kelly needs to relinquish her power grab and reopen the state.”
One local lawmaker did not agree with the way the last day of the session was handled.
Rep. Mark Samsel, a Wellsville Republican, voted against the bill.
After the session wrapped up, Samsel posted a statement on Facebook that explained his “no” vote.
“When you give power away, you rarely get it back,” Samsel said. “The Kansas Emergency Management Act gave power to the governor. The COVID-19 pandemic teaches that it is too much power for one person without legislative oversight.”
But Samsel didn’t endorse the concept of putting that power in the hands of just a few legislators.
“It further teaches that such legislative oversight in the hands of just seven or eight members of the Legislative Coordinating Council or State Finance Council, respectively, is too much power in too few hands.”
As a result, Samsel said, the state government became dysfunctional during a time of emergency.
“We must do better for Kansas,” he said.
In a Facebook post from Topeka, Samsel said: “With a new 78-page bill prepared around 5 a.m. that no one has read, legislators presently sleeping in the Chamber, and most legislators awake for more than 24 hours, I reluctantly offered a motion to adjourn Sine Die.”
The motion failed by a wide margin, Samsel said.
“We need to get serious and work legislation that has a real shot of getting signed by the Governor,” Samsel said. “This doesn't. The Governor will veto. We're merely kicking the can down the road.”
Kelly, a former state senator, called the wrap-up session “an unprecedented and outstanding demonstration of the dysfunction” of the Legislature.
“The losers of this ordeal will be the people of Kansas,” Kelly said.
Kelly said she will continue to implement her “Ad Astra: A Plan to Reopen Kansas.” The modified second phase of the plan began Friday. The third phase is tentatively scheduled to begin June 8.