Views from Kansas: Revisit law on emergencies

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

Kansans who listened to any part of Friday’s meeting of the State Finance Council first would be amazed, then embarrassed, and finally outraged about the way their government is run.

The council convened by telephone to discuss Gov. Laura Kelly’s request to extend the state’s declaration of a COVID-19 emergency beyond Sept. 15. Kelly said she needed the extension to qualify for federal pandemic assistance and to protect the operation of the state’s courts.

That seems simple enough. Everyone on the council, Republicans and Democrats, agreed the declaration needed to be extended, and the finance council needed to do it.

But Republican leadership insisted on explicit language in the resolution prohibiting Kelly from closing Kansas businesses in the coming weeks. Kelly said she had no intention of shutting anyone’s doors, but they wanted it in writing.

Chaos. Members accused one another of bad faith, playing politics, shutting off debate. Motions were made, and votes were cast. Lawyers offered language, which was rejected. Republicans wanted Kelly to surrender the power their own bill had given her, and she wasn’t interested.

“There’s absolutely no need to do it,” Kelly said, later adding, “Unless some mushroom cloud of coronavirus should spread all across the state of Kansas, I would have absolutely no intention of putting in a statewide stay-home order.”

Republicans were unsatisfied. “It’s time for the gamesmanship to end, governor,” state Rep. Dan Hawkins said, without a hint of irony, or self-awareness.

“Everyone wants to stop this virus,” state Sen. Susan Wagle said, which may be true but misses the point. Wagle and her GOP colleagues were far more interested in stopping Laura Kelly than in stopping COVID-19.

Finally, in the afternoon, reason prevailed. Kelly agreed to formally say she did not intend to use her authority to close any businesses, and everyone climbed on board.

Kansans will be better protected by the extended declaration. But there will be no more important task for the newly elected Legislature in 2021 than to rewrite the laws addressing the governor’s powers and responsibilities when dealing with emergencies like COVID-19.

It’s now clear that the laws written this June addressing those powers were slapdash efforts. Any governor — in fact, all governors — must have broad powers to address dangers such as a global epidemic. Kansas law is confusing and restrictive, which in turn pushes the state to the edge of crisis about every 30 days. That has to be fixed.

Legislative oversight is important, of course. And exercising that oversight when the full Legislature is out of session is difficult. That’s why the finance council is involved.

But the structure assumes, wrongly, that members of the council will operate in good faith to review the governor’s decisions. They have not.

Why have we not seen such brinkmanship in Missouri, where Gov. Mike Parson has exercised similar executive powers? That’s easy: The same party controls the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. When different parties control different branches, you get the mess we now see in Kansas.

Kansas lawmakers must revisit the state’s emergency response structure. It should extend the time a governor can issue emergency orders and require the full Legislature to convene for debate over those orders if necessary.

If that seems clunky, so be it. The people’s business should not be held hostage to one or two legislative leaders who have political reasons for obstructionism. The health of Kansans and their government is at stake.

— Originally published in The Kansas City Star

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