Checks on governor’s power, bill requiring in-person K-12 classes moving through Kansas Statehouse

photo by: John Hanna, Associated Press

Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, speaks to fellow GOP senators during a caucus meeting, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka. Masterson sees some improvements in what he considered a disastrous state rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and is pushing a bill to require all K-12 schools to offer in-person classes to all students.

Story updated at 5:57 p.m. Wednesday:

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Conservative Republican lawmakers argued Wednesday that Kansas shouldn’t be able to shut down businesses during an emergency like the coronavirus pandemic as the GOP-controlled Legislature considered how far to go in restricting a governor’s power in future emergencies.

The state House gave first-round approval on a voice vote to a bill that would require governors to confer with the state’s attorney general and get legislative leaders’ approval before issuing executive orders during a state of emergency. Some Republicans are still upset over actions Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly took last spring to close K-12 schools and businesses and want to go further in restricting governors’ power.

House members expected to take another, final vote Thursday on its bill. If it passed then, it would go to the Senate, which has approved its own measure. The final version of a bill rewriting the state’s emergency management laws will be drafted by negotiators for the two chambers.

The Senate approved, 26-12, a bill pushed by its top Republican, President Ty Masterson, to require all of the state’s 286 local school districts to offer in-person classes to all students by March 26. Masterson, from Andover, and other GOP senators said they were helping the many students who hadn’t fared well academically or emotionally with online classes, but the State Department of Education says only a handful of districts don’t plan to have a majority of students back in their buildings by the bill’s deadline.

Democrats decried the schools bill as an unnecessary attack on local control of schools, though they largely backed Kelly’s decision in March 2020 to shut down all K-12 buildings through the end of the spring semester. They criticized the House bill as likely to slow down the state’s responses to future disasters.

“You need somebody in charge and you need somebody who can act quickly,” said Democratic state Rep. Pam Curtis, of Kansas City, Kan.

House Republicans argued that they’re striking a balance, making sure that there’s some check on the governor, who generally has broad powers after declaring a state of emergency. Kelly imposed a statewide stay-at-home order last spring for five weeks, but GOP lawmakers later forced her to accept local control over mask mandates and restrictions on businesses and public gatherings to keep the COVID-19 state of emergency in place.

The Senate GOP’s bill would not only curtail the governor’s power but prevent locally appointed health officers from issuing orders, leaving decisions to elected county or city officials. Some conservative Republicans wanted to go further and ban business closures or even restrictions but acknowledged Kelly would never sign such legislation.

Rep. Randy Garber, a conservative Sabetha Republican who doesn’t wear a mask, said business owners operate with common sense and will know when to close or impose safety measures during future pandemics.

“These people have put their lives’ work in the business,” Garber said. “We, as a legislative body, county commissioners, cities, should not have the right to close those businesses — for any reason.”

The latest debate over the governor’s power came as the state continued to see a decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases. Kansas averaged 325 new confirmed and probable cases a day for the seven days ending Wednesday, its lowest rolling seven-day average in eight months, according to state Department of Health and Environment data.

The state health department added 807 new cases since Monday to its total for the nearly yearlong pandemic, bringing it to 295,109, or one case for every 10 of the state’s 2.9 million residents. The department also reported an additional 73 deaths since Monday, to bring the pandemic total to 4,816.

Republican legislators also have repeatedly criticized the Democratic governor’s administration over what they view as a slow distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. As that debate continued in recent weeks, hundreds of people working at the Statehouse were offered inoculations outside the state’s tiers of distribution.

They included lawmakers, their research, bill-drafting and auditing staffs and their assistants and secretaries. The offers also extended to security and housekeeping staffs.

Reporters were offered shots in a Feb. 22 email from the Department of Health and Environment, which stressed that the same offer was not available to the general public. Reporters for The Associated Press did not accept shots.

Tom Day, the director of Legislative Administrative Services, put the number of people offered inoculations at between 500 and 600. State officials did not have numbers on how many people at the Statehouse got the shots.

Kelly said the state prioritized people working in the Statehouse based on “who could work remotely versus who had to work within in the building.”

“That’s how all of you got moved up into that,” Kelly told reporters during her news conference. “It was just a matter of the work location.”

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