It’s not perfect, but it’s a good compromise, Rep. Mark Samsel said of COVID-19 legislation lawmakers approved Thursday, June 4, that limits the governor’s emergency powers in handling the coronavirus pandemic.
“No one in this building likes the whole thing, but that’s how compromise works,” said Samsel, a Wellsville Republican who voted for HB 2016.
Lawmakers passed the bill by overwhelming majorities in the House (107-12) and Senate (26-12) before adjourning a special session that afternoon that had been called by Gov. Laura Kelly.
Samsel strongly opposed the initial bill (Senate Substitute for House Bill 2054) that Kelly vetoed after it passed the Legislature early May 22 following a day-long session.
“I refuse to believe that dropping 78-page bills at 4 AM that no one has read is the best we can do,” Samsel wrote on his Facebook page.
Samsel said he was much more pleased with the process in how the second bill was addressed, even though he admits the bill isn’t perfect.
“We have plenty of room for improvement moving forward into 2021, but Kansas can be proud of this result,” Samsel posted on his page. “It strikes a strong (albeit imperfect) balance of checks and balances, and restricts the power of the Governor to close businesses and livelihoods here in rural Kansas. Legislative approval is a prerequisite. Collaboration between both branches of government is required. It provides some liability protection for businesses and healthcare providers who follow reasonable COVID-19 protocols. It attempts to balance that with proper safety for our senior citizens and other individuals at higher risk.”
In addition to providing businesses and healthcare providers with certain protections against COVID-related lawsuits, HB 2016 requires legislative oversight of federal funding for COVID-19 relief and recovery efforts and restricts the governor’s ability to close businesses.
The measure also prevents the governor from closing school buildings without the approval of the Kansas State Board of Education.
HB 2016 strengthens local government oversight of the pandemic.
The bill allows any “state of local disaster emergency” declaration to be reviewed, amended, or revoked by a Board of County Commissioners or the governing body of a city. The measure gives Board of County Commissioners the latitude, after consultation with local health officials, to issue an order relating to public health that is less stringent than the provisions of a statewide executive order issued by the governor.
Rep. Jene Vickrey, a Republican from Louisburg who is wrapping up his final term after representing the 6th District the past 28 years, voted for HB 2016.
He said it is an improved version of the bill that Kelly previously vetoed, and he particularly likes that it gives county commissioners the authority to apply COVID-19-related regulations as best they see fit in their local communities.
The bill would create a new section of law ratifying and continuing through Sept. 15 the COVID-19 related state of disaster emergency Gov. Kelly declared on March 12, and was extended by the State Finance Council (SFC) through May 26.
The bill, however, also would prohibit Kelly from proclaiming any new COVID-19-related state of disaster emergency during 2020, unless the governor makes specific application to the SFC and receives approval of at least six legislative members of the SFC.
HB 2016 would create the COVID-19 Contact Tracing Privacy Act to protect the privacy of persons whose information is collected through contact tracing and the confidentiality of contact data. The measures specifies participation in contact tracing is voluntary.
The bill would prohibit contact tracing from being conducted through the use of any service or means that uses cellphone location data to identify or track, directly or indirectly, the movement of persons.
Gov. Kelly has pledged to sign the bill and said she met with legislative leaders prior to the beginning of the two-day special session that began Wednesday, June 3.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg, voted against the bill.
She said the governor’s chief of staff relayed the message that if any liability protection for nursing homes or community colleges were to be added to the bill, the governor would veto it.
Baumgardner also was in favor of adding wording that would require first responders to receive testing if they were exposed to a COVID-19 patient during a call, but it wasn’t approved.
The senator also criticized the legislative process, saying leadership from the House and Senate negotiated the bill over the weekend in closed meetings.
Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Republican from Parker, also voted against the bill because it does not address several concerns she has heard from her constituents, including liability protection for nursing homes.
She said the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services is forcing nursing facilities to take COVID-19 patients, and in other situations family members are being prevented from seeing loved ones, even in counties where there are zero virus cases reported.
She also was critical of Gov. Kelly’s handling of the legislative process, using her veto power as a threat and not allowing the Legislature to meet in time to override her previous veto with the required majority as listed in the state constitution.
“Our leadership boxed us in,” Tyson said.