Kansas’ state of emergency extended through May 26 as governor, GOP trade barbs

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, February 2014.

The Kansas State Finance Council has extended the state’s emergency disaster declaration — but for much less time than Gov. Laura Kelly had anticipated, highlighting the widening divide between the governor and the Legislature over the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nine-member committee that includes Kelly and eight legislative leaders voted to extend the declaration through Memorial Day — 12 days, rather than the 30 that Kelly had expected, much to the chagrin of Kelly and the two other Democrats on the committee. The move will allow state lawmakers to further evaluate the declaration when they return to the Statehouse on May 21.

A state of emergency simply means that Kansas officials can dedicate funds toward solving whatever emergency is taking place — in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic. It does not refer to any stay-at-home orders, which expired statewide on May 4.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, moved to amend the resolution extending Kansas’ state of emergency for the shorter time period. The logic, he said, was that the Legislature as a whole could then further address the need to extend the state of emergency through a new piece of legislation during the one-day adjournment session later this month.

Kelly said that while she understood the desire to examine the emergency declaration — and by extension the state Emergency Management Act — the decision to draft and pass a new bill in one day could prove disastrous for Kansans already struggling during a pandemic.

If the Legislature for whatever reason can’t pass a new emergency powers bill and extend the state of emergency, all executive orders relating to the pandemic would be null and void when the state of emergency expires on May 26.

“The implications for Kansas of this getting screwed up and being left without a declaration is beyond what I can describe to you,” Kelly said. “We need to think seriously about where we’re going with this.”

Republicans on the committee, such as outgoing Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said the purpose of drafting a new bill was to solidify some form of legislative oversight of Kelly’s emergency powers.

At one point referring to Kelly’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis as “(allowing) one dictator to determine everything,” Wagle said many executive orders issued during the pandemic were “overreaching.”

Wagle was referring mainly to Kelly’s executive order limiting mass gatherings at religious ceremonies just before the Easter and Passover holidays in April.

During the meeting, the Senate president incorrectly characterized Kelly’s order as “preventing people from practicing their religion” (it didn’t, it just limited the ability to do so in person) and said her office has been inundated with requests from businesses that want to reopen but were told they can’t until the state of emergency is lifted (Kelly has issued no limitations on businesses opening beyond May 18).

Denning also told Kelly it would be in her best interest to sign legislation that would limit her emergency powers, and she bristled.

“My best interests are not what’s at stake here,” Kelly said. “It’s the best interests of the citizens of the state of Kansas, and I would like you all to consider that.”

Ultimately, the council voted 6-3 along party lines to extend the state of emergency to May 26. Wagle, Denning, Sen. Carolyn McGinn, Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., Rep. Dan Hawkins and Rep. Troy Waymaster voted to extend the state of emergency for a shortened time. Democrats Sen. Anthony Hensley, Rep. Tom Sawyer and Kelly voted against the measure.

The Legislature returns for its adjournment session on May 21, and if it cannot pass a new piece of emergency legislation, the state of emergency will expire on May 26. Kansas statute would make it difficult for Kelly to issue a new state of emergency for the same crisis.

Neither of Kelly’s two Republican predecessors faced a backlash for using emergency powers, nor did Kelly last year when dealing with weather-related disasters.

“A disaster involving a flood doesn’t include a governor’s executive order to criminalize going to church. It doesn’t shut down businesses,” said Hawkins, another Wichita Republican. “There has to be some trust developed, and we don’t have that right now.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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