Gov. Laura Kelly, legislators agree on extension of COVID-19 emergency declaration

Disaster document amended to say Democratic governor doesn’t intend to again close businesses

By: - September 11, 2020 11:45 am
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature convene the annual session Monday at the Capitol with budget, tax, health and other issues on an agenda made wider due to the shortened 2020 session. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature convene the annual session Monday at the Capitol with budget, tax, health and other issues on an agenda made wider due to the shortened 2020 session. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly and all eight legislators on the State Finance Council ended an unusually combative meeting Friday by adopting a 30-day extension of the COVID-19 state disaster declaration that was amended to include a clause sought by Republicans declaring it wasn’t the Democratic governor’s intention to again close businesses.

House and Senate legislative leadership and Kelly debated for three hours the wisdom of inserting the business-closure language into an emergency declaration essential to sustaining Kansas’ financial, logistical and public health response to the virus. Since March, COVID-19 has killed at least 511 Kansans — an increase of 16 since Wednesday.

The six GOP members on the council insisted the governor weave into the declaration assurances the executive branch wouldn’t again shutter businesses in response to future spread of COVID-19. Initially, Kelly pushed back against inclusion of such a pledge. The council eventually compromised on a short amendment that said it wasn’t the governor’s intent to lock down businesses.

“Unless some mushroom cloud of coronavirus should spread all across the state of Kansas,” the governor said, “I would have absolutely no intention of putting in a statewide stay-at-home order during this crisis.”

The state’s existing emergency declaration expires Sept. 15. At that time, new Kansas law approved by the GOP-led Legislature and signed by Kelly would allow the governor to issue 15-day business closures. The law says any extension of those orders would need to be endorsed by the State Finance Council. In addition, counties could opt out of such and order. Action taken Wednesday by the council didn’t nullify that statute.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman says it was important to extract a written statement from the governor that she doesn’t intend to close businesses because it will be difficult for her to take action now without inviting intense scrutiny. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“Our business owners must have stability and predictability so they can rehire workers, make investments and get our economy going again,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican who previously tested positive for COVID-19.

If the council had decided not to renew the state disaster declaration, a series of executive orders also would expire Sept. 15.

“The disaster declaration, along with these executive orders, are critical to ensuring Kansas has the tools and support it needs to continue responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kelly said.

Senate President Susan Wagle and House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, both Wichita Republicans, expressed hostility toward the governor regarding her decisions about handling the pandemic. During the conference call, the governor’s chief of staff, Will Lawrence, denounced GOP legislative leaders for approaching the issue from a partisan political perspective. These adversaries insisted the other side was injecting politics into management of a virus that has infected more than 48,300 Kansans.

“Let’s not pretend this is about businesses. This is just about politics,” said Kelly, who has battled GOP legislators since March regarding COVID-19. “There is so much at stake here. Let’s vote for the people.”

Hawkins said the governor mismanaged the COVID-19 response on multiple fronts. He said he was weary of the Kelly administration’s criticism of Republicans as only concerned about political angles of the pandemic.

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said everything the governor does, by definition, is political, and that it was disingenuous of her to claim Republicans were playing politics and she isn’t. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“I’m flat tired of that narrative,” Hawkins said. “It’s time for the gamesmanship to end.”

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said it was disheartening Kansas Republicans “chose to play political games rather than take swift action to do what’s right” on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

Wagle, the Senate president, was among Republican council members who accused the governor of violating council rules by essentially vetoing a motion made by the House speaker. The council consists of six Republican legislators, two Democratic legislators and the governor. In Wagle’s view, the governor didn’t have authority to veto an earlier party-line vote on dealing with extension of the executive order.

“We went into this meeting with the understanding that six votes rule on this declaration,” said Wagle, who attempted to postpone a decision on the emergency declaration until Monday. “I’m very disappointed in how this meeting was run.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.