TOPEKA — Kansas Republican leaders of the House and Senate pledged to move swiftly to thwart Gov. Laura Kelly’s issuance of a new executive order April 1 directing statewide reliance on face coverings during the pandemic.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Senate President Ty Masterson said they would act on new disaster oversight authority vested in the Legislature now that Kelly signed into law Wednesday an overhaul of the Kansas Emergency Management Act.
The GOP-dominated Legislature put together Senate Bill 40 to amend procedures for declaration and extension of disaster emergencies, but the statute also extended the current overarching COVID-19 declaration until May 28. The new law revoked all current executive orders related to the pandemic, but the governor retained the right to re-issue orders.
The Democratic governor said she intended to re-issue a mask order and renew 11 other orders. They would remain in place until end of the coronavirus emergency or until rescinded by passage of a concurrent resolution in the House and Senate or by action of lawmakers on the Legislative Coordinating Council.
Kelly could have vetoed the bill, but the practical reality was Republicans possess two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate and were almost certain to overturn a decision to spike the package diminishing her executive authority, undercutting health officers and empowering Kansans to challenge disaster rules.
“This bipartisan compromise will extend the state of disaster emergency that allows us to provide hospitals with personal protective equipment, support food banks and pantries, and otherwise respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kelly said. “The bill includes provisions that I do not support and that could complicate our emergency response efforts, but I will continue to work with legislators and local leaders to keep Kansans safe and healthy during this pandemic.”
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported the virus has so far infected 300,900, hospitalized 9,600 and contributed to the death of 4,881 Kansas residents since March 2020. More than 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Kansas.
Ryckman, the House’s top official and an Olathe Republican, said Senate Bill 40 delivered “much-needed oversight” of Kelly’s executive orders and completed reshaping of the KEMA law that initially enabled the governor to close schools and businesses, require wearing of masks and institute restrictions on mass gatherings. The Legislature previously acted to allow county commissions to opt out of Kelly’s health directives.
“Governor Kelly’s announcement that she intends to issue another unnecessary mask mandate shows the importance of this oversight,” Ryckman said. “House Republicans stand ready to take action if Governor Kelly moves forward with this plan.”
Masterson, the Andover Republican and president of the Senate, said the Legislature wouldn’t be shy about deploying its new ability to offer a check on the governor.
“Should the governor issue any more executive orders which imposes an undue burden on the people of Kansas, including any unnecessary new mask mandate, rest assured the Senate will take immediate action,” he said.
Kelly released a statement saying that on April 1 she would re-issue an order applicable to all counties outlining face-covering protocol for people in public places and in outdoor spaces where social distancing couldn’t be maintained.
In addition, she planned to issue orders allowing notaries and witnesses to act through audio-video communications, relieving restrictions on shared work programs, amending licensure, certification and registration rules, prohibiting certain foreclosures and evictions, and requiring coronavirus testing in adult care homes.
She also listed an order providing relief from unemployment insurance requirements, employer payment of income tax withholding for work performed in another state and relief from tuberculin testing requirements. The roster included an order authorizing additional COVID-19 vaccinators.
Kelly said she intended not to re-issue orders deferring tax deadlines and payments, mandating COVID-19 mitigation procedures in K-12 schools and amending regulation of vehicle registration and personal driver licenses.