Kansas governor renews high-stakes clash with Republicans over COVID-19 emergency declaration

Senate president signals interest in ‘middle ground’ of ending unemployment aid

By: - May 27, 2021 3:46 pm
Maj. Gen. David Weishaar, the Kansas adjutant general, said about 280 Air and Army members of the Kansas National Guard would deploy to Louisiana to support hurricane recovery efforts. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Maj. Gen. David Weishaar, the Kansas adjutant general, said about 280 Air and Army members of the Kansas National Guard would deploy to Louisiana to support hurricane recovery efforts. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Maj. Gen. David Weishaar told legislative leadership Wednesday they haven’t heard him talk much in the past year because he tries to save his words for when they are important.

And what he was about to say was important.

If the current emergency declaration for COVID-19 were to expire on Friday as scheduled, the Kansas adjutant general would lose his authority to direct personnel to help with pandemic recovery. That includes the distributing vaccines, personal protective equipment and food, transporting test samples to labs, planning for mobile clinics, contracting with nurses, and managing shelters for isolated essential workers.

The state also would risk losing the federal funding for those tasks.

“I would ask for your favorable consideration in extending this declaration so we can continue to leverage every resource we have available,” Weishaar said.

The Legislative Coordinating Council, an eight-member body with a 6-2 Republican majority, decided to think it over for a couple of days before meeting again on Friday.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly sent a letter to the LCC asking the panel to extend the emergency until June 27. In what has become a routine clash, Republican leaders will have to balance their political interest in minimizing the risk of the pandemic with the consequences of declaring the emergency is over.

“Part of our problem is from the fact that we’ve worked together and not worked together on this issue at times,” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins. “So trust is something that we have to try to build, and it’s been a difficult thing for the last six to eight months.”

As of Wednesday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has recorded 5,067 deaths from COVID-19 since the first fatality in March 2020. More than 313,000 Kansans have tested positive for the virus. Kansas has administered about 2.3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

“I know Kansans are eager to put the pandemic behind us — so am I,” the governor wrote in her letter. “But we can’t put the pandemic behind us by closing our eyes and trying to convince ourselves that it’s all over.”

Senate President Ty Masterson questions the governor’s counsel about the administration’s interest in ending federal unemployment aid. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Republicans could attempt to leverage the emergency declaration’s expiration for the governor’s ability to opt out of federal unemployment aid for out-of-work Kansans.

Senate President Ty Masterson pointed to the concurrent resolution passed Wednesday by both the Senate and the House urging the governor to end the $300 federal boost to state unemployment benefits. He said there seems to be “some nexus here.”

“I’m trying to figure out if there’s a middle ground here in the sense of getting some disaster extension,” Masterson said.

Weishaar focused his comments on 440 days of coordination among local emergency managers, health departments, every stage agency, National Guard troops and hospital personnel.

He has received 23 requests this month from local governments, a significant decrease from 500 per month earlier in the pandemic. That includes the distribution of vaccines, as well as providing security and nurses for vaccine clinics.

Part of the response to the pandemic includes bulk food supplies to local food banks, a service that would end with the expiration of the emergency declaration.

About 40 civilians are currently staying in non-congregate shelters in Lansing, Gardner, Kansas City, Liberal and Salina,” Weishaar said. The housing is for health workers, first responders and safety officials who require quarantine or isolation.

A mobile vaccination site is planned for June 4 at the Kansas Speedway, with others to follow at schools around the state.

Weishaar couldn’t say for certain that the state would lose federal aid by ending the emergency declaration, and wasn’t sure exactly how much funding was at stake.

“I cannot get good guidance from FEMA,” he said. “One day I call FEMA, they tell me no worries. The second person I call at FEMA said if you end this declaration, you’re telling me the disaster period is over, so you may no longer be eligible for federal dollars.”

The governor’s executive orders for COVID-19 will expire Friday without an extension of the emergency declaration. Those orders deal with adult care home testing, renewal of driver’s licenses, training for vaccine injections, the waiving of a waiting week for unemployment benefits, remote notaries, and a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.