TOPEKA — Republicans on a joint committee studying reform of Kansas’ emergency management law Thursday expressed angst about the prominent role of urban legislators on the GOP-dominated State Finance Council serving a key oversight role and source of opposition to Gov. Laura Kelly’s maneuvering during the COVID-19 pandemic.
House and Senate members representing rural districts pointed out six of eight legislators on the council were from urban centers. Bunker Hill Rep. Troy Waymaster and Sedgwick Sen. Carolyn McGinn, who chair the House and Senate budget committees, live outside large cities. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who chairs the council, is from Topeka.
“Voices of western Kansas are a little different than voices for Johnson County,” said Rep. John Barker, an Abilene Republican.
Rep. Bradley Ralph, a Republican from Dodge City, said work of the State Finance Council during the public health emergency amplified concern rural interests weren’t equitably represented. Early in the pandemic, the incidence of COVID-19 in larger cities, especially Johnson County, vastly exceeded levels in rural regions of the state.
“It’s a reality,” Ralph said. “It put quite a microscope on it this time around.”
The issue surfaced during discussion at the Capitol by a special committee examining the Kansas Emergency Management Act initiated in 1953. It remains the central guide to actions of state government during disasters tied to flooding, wildfires and tornadoes as well as viruses spread among people.
The committee gathered several days of testimony before convening to talk about dozens of proposals and draft recommendations for the 2021 Legislature.
There was interest among some committee members in expansion of the number of House and Senate members assigned to the State Finance Council and to making certain positions on the council reflect geographic diversity in Kansas.
In addition, GOP Sen. Dennis Pyle of Hiawatha and Rep. Stephen Owens of Hesston were among legislators on the committee endorsing a requirement that the full Kansas Legislature be called into special session to extend disaster declarations beyond six weeks.
“There’s times the Legislature needs to be called up,” Pyle said.
Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican chairing the interim legislative committee on KEMA, said the emergency law worked effectively for decades. Issues raised during the pandemic make examination of the law necessary, he said. For example, the GOP-heavy Legislature objected to Kelly’s orders early in the pandemic instructing people to shelter at home, close nonessential businesses and limit access to churches.
He said the committee’s analysis of state law would be forwarded in a report to the Legislature and the House and Senate committees would consider reform options.
Sen. Rick Wilborn, the McPherson Republican, said the state should extend to nursing facilities the same limited immunity from lawsuits granted to other types of businesses due to the coronavirus. The governor supported exclusion of these long-term care facilities because many fatalities in Kansas related to COVID-19 occurred among residents of nursing homes.
He said attorneys were developing lawsuits alleging wrongful death, despite questions by Sen. Marci Francisco, a Lawrence Democrat, that there hadn’t been a flood of litigation on the subject.
“There’s no question it’s coming,” Wilborn said. “By all means that needs to be seriously considered and passed.”
Another issue for consideration when the Legislature convenes in January was action during 2020 to eliminate criminal penalties for people who don’t comply with a governor’s executive order during the pandemic. This generated heartburn in the law enforcement community because it weakened the ability of officers and deputies to control people. There is skepticism, legislators said, that a civil penalty of up to $2,500 can convince someone not to riot.
“I would feel that slow-as-you-go is probably the better course of action,” said Sen. Eric Rucker, a Topeka Republican who previously worked in the state attorney general’s office.
Rep. Mike Amyx, a Lawrence Democrat, likewise urged peers to exercise caution when altering state criminal code regarding executive orders issued by a governor. On the other hand, Pyle said he was concerned the existing $2,500 civil penalty in Kansas was unreasonably high, referring to it as “extremely exorbitant.”