Senate rejects attempt to force expiration of Kansas’ COVID-19 disaster declaration

Chamber advances bill extending emergency footing through March

Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, failed to convince Senate colleagues to let the state's COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration expire Jan. 26 to reopen the economy. The Senate moved to extend the disaster declaration to March 31. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, failed to convince Senate colleagues to let the state's COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration expire Jan. 26 to reopen the economy. The Senate moved to extend the disaster declaration to March 31. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Republican Sen. Dennis Pyle failed to gain traction for an amendment Thursday allowing the state’s COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration to expire Jan. 26 rather than extend it through March while lawmakers worked on an overhaul of the governor’s authority in the crisis.

“Drive out into the counties,” said Pyle, of Hiawatha in northeast Kansas. “Talk to people. There are people who want to keep it in place. I’ll agree. My polling is 80% are ready for it to end. I’ve asked waitresses. I’ve asked health care workers. I’ve asked farmers. I’ve asked business entities. They want the freedom to continue practicing health care based on their education and the sources they go to and trust. I want freedom put back in place so we can freely go about our lives.”

The Senate overwhelmingly rejected Pyle’s bill-killing amendment and advanced the measure extending the emergency management law applicable to Gov. Laura Kelly on a vote of 31-1. The House is working on a comparable bill that would give the Legislature time to piece together reform of Kansas’ law on disaster management.

Much of the Senate bill would reflect the governing approach replied upon for the past seven months. However, the Senate bill would change state law to prevent the governor from issuing an order inhibiting operations of any religious, civic, business or commercial activity, whether for-profit or not-for-profit. Under the current emergency statute, the governor could unilaterally close a business for 15 days.

The bill also would extend use of telemedicine services, waive liabilities for some businesses, allow continuation of to-go alcohol sales and give the State Finance Council, a panel that includes Kelly and legislative leadership, oversight of the governor’s actions if the Legislature adjourns.

Senate President Ty Masterson, the Andover Republican, objected to Pyle’s amendment because derailing Senate Bill 14 meant the state would revert to pre-pandemic law. Rejection of the extension running to March 31 would lift restrictions on the governor put in place by lawmakers during the special session in June, he said. That’s when lawmakers modernized the state statute created decades ago to deal with localized emergencies of floods, fires or tornadoes rather than a statewide pandemic that has now killed more than 3,350 Kansans.

“If things drop there would be a new emergency with all new expanded powers,” Masterson said. “The power to close your church or business. We would actually be empowering the executive.”

Pyle disagreed with Masterson, arguing Kelly wouldn’t be able to renew her disaster declaration. He said an opinion issued by Attorney General Derek Schmidt indicated signing of a new overarching declaration by the governor could be challenged in court.

“People have learned there are certain rights that you have that are God-given no governor, president, governmental entity should be able to take away or trample on,” Pyle said.

Skeptics of Pyle’s amendment questioned whether demise of the state’s emergency declaration could jeopardize flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal disaster funding to Kansas. In response, Pyle said it was wrong for Kansas politicians to sustain restrictions on personal freedom simply to score a mountain of cash.

Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican, said it was time for Kansas to reopen the economy and allow people to live as they wanted despite coronavirus pandemic. It’s unfair for state or county officials to restrict operation of certain businesses while allowing other companies to operate without limits, he said.

“It’s time to get this economy back open. A bunch of these counties should be wide open. They should have never been closed down,” Olson said. “When the federal money runs out, the PPP loans, we’re going to have a bunch of broken businesses and an economy that’s destroyed.”

Pyle’s amendment was defeated 31-5 with Pyle and Olson joined in dissent by GOP Sens. John Doll, of Garden City; Mike Thompson, of Shawnee; and Caryn Tyson, of Parker. Senate Democrats didn’t engage in floor debate on the emergency declaration law.