The legislative coordinating council, led by Senate President Ty Masterson, left, shortened a requested 30-day extension to 15-days much to the displeasure of Democratic leadership, including Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, right. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Kansas legislative leaders moved Friday to extend the state of emergency for the pandemic through June 15, while ending the block on evictions, despite requests from the governor for a 30-day extension.
In a brief meeting, House and Senate leadership debated the merits of extending the state of emergency declaration until June 27 — as requested by Gov. Laura Kelly — or a shorter option. The declaration allows the state’s emergency management department to coordinate efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Democratic members of the Legislative Coordinating Council argued cutting the state of emergency extension in half was premature considering the current vaccination rates and COVID-19 case numbers. However, Republican council members said the emergency had gone on long enough and that the state ought to focus on creating an “exit strategy.”
“As Kansans return to normal, they expect us to do the same,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican. “Today’s short-term extension provides the governor the remaining time needed to end the emergency — while also making it clear any unnecessary or burdensome executive orders will be revoked.”
The council, made up of eight members of House and Senate leadership, voted 6 to 2 to approve the shorter extension. They also tacked on an amendment ensuring the governor’s executive order banning evictions would end Friday.
The declaration has been in place since March 12, 2020. There have been 313,997 total COVID-19 cases and 5,076 deaths recorded by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment since the onset of the pandemic.
Ending the order too soon would result in lost federal pandemic relief aid and difficulty properly providing medical services, said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer. He said he is concerned that without the help of the National Guard — which has aided in administering over 2 million vaccine doses — Kansas would fall “months behind schedule.”
“We all want to get back to normal, but ending the declaration too soon will ultimately cause us to take longer to get there,” said Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat.
Without the National Guard’s assistance, Sawyer contended it could take up to 14 months for the state to reach 75% vaccination.
The other Democrat on the panel, Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, said the 15-day extension offered no real exit strategy to ensure the health and economic consequences of this crisis are addressed. Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, also lamented the cancellation of the ban on foreclosures and evictions, which received little discussion during the meeting after what appeared to be technical difficulties in the zoom call.
“After a session full of tax giveaways to giant multinational corporations and pandemic relief to businesses, it is cruel to give no exit strategy to hardworking Kansans who are struggling to make ends meet due to the economic impact this pandemic has had on our state,” Sykes said.
Lawmakers may have to consider a subsequent extension in June should the governor request it. With discussions leaning toward a definitive ending, it appears unlikely they would approve another extension.
House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said as much during the debate, forcefully opposing another 30-day extension. It remains clear there is no intention or plan to bring this emergency declaration to an end, he asserted.
“In a month and a half, you would have thought that if you knew that things were going to come to an end that you would have already had an exit strategy, a way to stop this,” Hawkins said. “My objection to the fact that there is no planning and all we do is just keep things going and going and going.”
In a statement, Reeves Oyster, spokeswoman for Gov. Kelly, said the continuation of the disaster declaration was of clear importance to get Kansas back to normal. Shortening it would jeopardize the recovery process, she said.
Oyster also noted Kelly’s disappointment with the eviction order decision.
“As we finally start to recover from this global pandemic, now is not the time to kick people out of their homes. Governor Kelly will continue to focus on doing what’s right – and not what’s politically convenient,” said Oyster.
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