Kansas Senate demands governor prioritize ‘law-abiding citizens’ over prisoners for vaccines

Opponents bashed the Trump-praising resolution for playing politics rather than making substantial change

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, supported a resolution condemning Gov. Laura Kelly's response to the pandemic and asking that she lower the priority level for incarcerated individuals. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A resolution passed Thursday by the Kansas Senate calls on the governor to prioritize “law-abiding citizens” before incarcerated individuals in the COVID-19 vaccine distribution order.

The measure also condemns Gov. Laura Kelly’s vaccination plan while simultaneously praising President Trump’s COVID-19 response as a “triumph of American ingenuity.” The resolution does not carry any legal authority.

Proponents argued it would send a strong and clear message to the governor that the pandemic response has not been adequate. Opponents argued this was nothing more than political theater intended to bash Kelly rather than accomplish anything meaningful.

Under the vaccination plan, which is based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, inmates are in the current, second phase of distribution. Residents ages 18 to 64 with severe medical risks are in the third phase.

Rep. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican and chairman of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, provided an intense hypothetical to frame his concerns.

“If you have a daughter or son — 24-year-old — that has diabetes, maybe they were raped, maybe something else horrific happens to them, that person that did that and is convicted and is currently incarcerated would receive the vaccination before the victim,” Hilderbrand said.

Supporters of the resolution said inmates would still receive the vaccine down the line and that correctional facility workers would remain in the second phase. The CDC encourages staff and prisoners to be vaccinated at the same time because of their “shared increased risk of disease.”

The resolution was one of eight measures to pass Friday on the Senate floor.

Hilderbrand said his health committee tried to provide the Kansas Department of Health and Environment the opportunity to explain or amend the distribution order to no avail. KDHE canceled scheduled meetings with both the House and Senate health committee to focus on vaccine distribution before scheduling a joint hearing the following two weeks.

Hildebrand said department staff was slow in responding to and following up on questions when asked. In the meantime, an “inadequate” distribution order was established.

“We have a lack of vaccines going out, so we need to put our most vulnerable people in a higher priority level,” Hilderbrand said. “That’s why we need such a strong message to the administration to please take a second look at this phase and reprioritize.”

Hildebrand said the CDC shows Kansas currently ranks low among 50 states in vaccination rate, although KDHE has repeatedly said this is due to a delay in data reporting and that virtually all of the distributed doses have been injected into people’s arms.

Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, said the resolution is a breath of fresh air amid what he called “a taxpayer-funded fear campaign” by the Kelly administration.

“It’s a risk-benefit type of scenario, and we’ve just seen mishap after mishap. I am thrilled to rise in support of a resolution that rectifies one of many errors and documents the fails response we’ve seen,” Steffen said.

Steffen has previously cast doubt on the efficacy of the vaccine and supported alternative methods to address the virus, like essential oils.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, bashed Senate Republicans for wasting taxpayer dollars and playing politics. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, bashed the resolution as a waste of taxpayer time and money. He said the inclusion of several clauses blasting Kelly and praising Trump indicates the body is more interested in playing politics than passing meaningful legislation.

“What are we doing here today? I could be sitting in my office addressing some of my emails about my constituent’s issues — that’d be a much more productive use of my time than sitting here listening to the majority party basically trash the governor,” Holland said.

Holland proposed an amendment that would note the attempted insurrection that occurred Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., but the amendment was ruled not germane.

Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, took exception to Holland’s claim the bill was essentially a politically driven hit, as Holland called it, on Kelly. Longbine said his daughter, 21, is a type one diabetic and unable to receive the vaccine.

“She’s very susceptible to the virus and would cause tremendous problems if she contracted the virus,” Longbine said. “I’m supposed to explain to my daughter that she can’t live a normal life. She has to stay home and manage her blood sugar to the best of her ability because we’re going to give vaccines to prisoners.”

The resolution passed 28-8, with some Democrats breaking from party lines to vote in support of the proposal.

Sen. Jeff Pittman, D-Leavenworth, was among those who voted in favor of the bill. He said getting involved in the prioritization order was not a bad idea although he did express disappointment the resolution packed in criticism of Kelly rather than getting straight to the point.

“I wish we had taken the time to look through these prioritizations given to us from the CDC and said, as a body, what are we wanting to do here and who do we want to prioritize because this is a one-shot resolution,” Pittman said. “There’s a lot of stuff loaded into it.”

The Senate also passed a bill that would ban local governments from imposing any regulation that “discriminates against” fossil fuel utilities, preventing municipalities from phasing out natural gas. The bill championed by Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, passed 28-10.

Opponents of the bill argued that although it is important to leave the decision of fuel source up to the consumer for now, the bill would restrict ongoing efforts to preserve the environment.

Another bill seeks to establish the Kansas pesticide waste disposal program and fund, which would receive up to $50,000 annually from the Kansas agricultural remediation fund. Sen Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, said the only money currently being used to clean up pesticides was federal funds from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Senators also passed several bills discussed previously, including a bill authorizing the state fair board to use money in the state fair capital improvements fund for operations in 2021 and 2022.