COVID-19 has Kansas lawmakers pondering broader oversight

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas state Sen. Dennis Pyle, left, R-Hiawatha, left, makes a point at the end of a legislative committee meeting on the state's emergency management laws as Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston, watches, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Both lawmakers favor broader legislative oversight of the governor's handling of long-term emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican legislators in Kansas have started pushing to give more of their colleagues a say in how the state manages protracted emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic after months of conflict between them and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

A Republican-led legislative committee studying the state’s emergency management laws agreed Thursday that the GOP-controlled Legislature should consider creating a new panel with permanent oversight of how the governor handles monthslong emergencies. The study committee also said lawmakers should look into making it easier for them to reconvene later in the year after their annual spring session has concluded.

Top Republicans previously concluded that the Legislature needs to revise laws that give the governor sweeping powers during a state of emergency, arguing that they were designed for short-term emergencies such as floods and tornadoes. Kelly and GOP lawmakers compromised in June on a special law that set separate rules for the coronavirus pandemic, but key parts of it expire in late January 2021.

The law gave eight top legislative leaders, six of them Republicans, some oversight of Kelly’s actions and the ability to prevent her from extending the state’s existing state of emergency past mid-October. Six of the lawmakers are from the state’s two most populous counties, where support for restrictions is greater and mask-wearing is more common, and only one is from western Kansas, where skepticism of such measures is stronger. That’s created dissatisfaction among rank-and-file lawmakers, particularly conservatives from rural areas.

“It’s too limited, and you’re not guaranteed to have diversity,” said Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican and the study committee’s chairman.

Kelly frustrated many Republicans by closing all K-12 schools in March for the rest of the spring semester, keeping a statewide stay-at-home order in place for five weeks this spring and imposing statewide restrictions this spring on businesses and public gatherings. They’ve argued for giving local officials control over such decisions and forced Kelly to largely accept that approach since Memorial Day.

Kansas has reported more than 55,000 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases, or 19 for every 1,000 residents, with 621 reported COVID-19-related deaths as of Wednesday.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Kansas has risen over the past two weeks, from 496 new cases per day on Sept. 9 to 622 per day on Wednesday. That last figure represented the biggest spike in new Kansas cases since the pandemic began.

“Laura Kelly, I felt like, was managing this public health crisis very well until the Republicans stepped in and started restricting her power,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

The Legislature delegated decisions to its top leaders because lawmakers meet regularly only during the first part of each year in annual sessions scheduled for 90 days ending in May. Governors can call special sessions, as Kelly did to get the pandemic law enacted in early June, but the state’s tradition is not to have them frequently. Legislators can call themselves back only if two-thirds of them want to do it.

Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican, said his constituents want him to be active in the state’s pandemic response, asking him, “Why aren’t you in Topeka fixing this?”

“I just think more legislative oversight is the way to go,” he said.

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