Kansas COVID-19 emergency will expire after GOP leaders refuse to meet

By: - June 15, 2021 9:43 am

Senate President Ty Masterson says the “circumstances surrounding COVID-19” no longer require an emergency declaration. (May 27, 2021, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Senate President Ty Masterson announced Tuesday that GOP legislative leaders would force an end to the state’s emergency declaration for COVID-19 by refusing to meet and consider an extension.

The decision means the 15-month emergency will expire at the end of Tuesday, abruptly ending executive orders and stressing the state’s ability to distribute vaccines.

Masterson, an Andover Republican, ignored overtures from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who hoped to keep the declaration in place to allow for a smooth transition to normal operations. The governor asked the Legislative Coordinating Council to extend the emergency declaration for 30 days, and indicated it would take until Aug. 30 to transfer duties from the Kansas National Guard to other agencies.

Instead, Masterson canceled the LCC meeting that was scheduled for Tuesday. The LCC is composed of six Republican leaders and two Democrats.

“The Legislature and the LCC have granted the governor every extension request over the last year, but the current circumstances surrounding COVID-19 no longer necessitate a statewide disaster emergency,” Masterson said. “The governor has not provided adequate justification for the LCC to grant her request for yet another extension, and all remaining efforts related to COVID-19 can and should take place under our normal procedures.”

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, said any future obstacles with the state’s recovery from the pandemic now lie squarely on the shoulders of Republican leaders.

“Republicans can’t stand allowing our governor to get it right — they won’t even meet to discuss it,” Sykes said. “Why would they begin to take this seriously now, when they have downplayed this pandemic and its consequences from the very beginning?”

As of Monday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment had recorded 5,125 deaths from COVID-19 since the virus first was detected in the state in March 2020. An additional 316,000 have been infected with the disease.

The state continues to add dozens of deaths to the tally each week from residents who refuse to be vaccinated. Slightly more than half of adult Kansans have received a dose from one of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Kelly said the refusal to extend the emergency will make it more difficult for the state to respond to the ongoing pandemic.

“We will move forward in spite of this political obstruction and continue to work with our partners and communities to support our schools, businesses and all Kansans through this pandemic,” Kelly said.

In a briefing with reporters, the governor’s chief of staff, Will Lawrence, said the state will continue to carry out all planned operations, but doing so will be more difficult.

By operating under a state of emergency, the Kelly administration has been able to utilize the Kansas National Guard and federal aid for the purchase and distribution of medical supplies and vaccines. The declaration provided for contract nurses, temporary housing for individuals who required isolation, and food assistance for needy families.

The state is expected to continue to receive aid through the federal disaster declaration, but KDHE will assume many of the administrative tasks conducted by the adjutant general’s office. That includes distribution of personal protective equipment to local health officials, and oversight of 20 vaccine clinics already planned for the next six weeks.

The state declaration also gave the governor authority to issue executive orders, pending LCC approval. The governor hoped to keep several orders in place, including ones dealing with renewal of expired driver’s licenses and remote notarizations. Instead, all orders expire at the end of Tuesday.

The Legislature revised state emergency management law during a special session last year, placing new limits on the governor’s authority to manage the pandemic. Then, beginning last fall, Republican leadership engaged the governor in a series of high-profile battles over whether to extend the emergency.

Last month, the LCC granted a 15-day extension while grumbling about the need for the state to fast-track its transition plans. The governor sent a letter on Friday asking for more time, and offering to rescind a handful of executive orders.

“The LCC recommended the governor develop an exit strategy to end the emergency,” Masterson said. “However, after reviewing the governor’s letter, it appears the governor opted for an extension strategy.”

Republican leaders in the House issued a statement saying the governor failed to make a clear case for extending the emergency.

“The emergency part of this disaster has thankfully passed,” the House Republicans said. “Now is the time to help Kansans recover, rally, and return to normal.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 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.