Kansas Governor Laura Kelly Tuesday vetoed a sweeping emergency response bill passed by the legislature in the waning moments of the 2020 session. Her action also eliminates COVID liability protections for healthcare workers and businesses and turns authority to restrict business and other activities over to counties.
The bill she vetoed would have provided what some House Republicans in a release called stability.
Some provisions of the bill included:
- Ratifying all previous disaster declarations so there would be no gap in coverage and no risk of losing federal stimulus dollars.
- Provided a means to extend the disaster declaration using the same mechanism already in the law for animal pandemics but with an easier standard of 6 of 8 votes instead of 8 of 8 as is required now.
- Modernized emergency management law to address legal concerns raised by the Attorney General.
- Protected vulnerable nursing home residents with stronger inspections and better access to protective equipment.
- Gave flexibility to hospitals and frontline healthcare workers to respond to this pandemic using technology and cut through red tape to increase access to care by increasing the availability of tele-healthcare.
- Added liability protections to give healthcare workers and first responders protection from Covid-19 lawsuits.
- Restored oversight of federal stimulus funds as the Kansas Constitution requires the legislative branch to budget money with the advice of the governor.
- Put recent changes to the unemployment system in statute, such as waiving the one week waiting period, extending benefits to 26 weeks, and ensuring Kansans did not lose their federal unemployment funds.
- Changing criminal penalties to civil remedies so Kansans don’t face jail time for violating one of over 30 sometimes conflicting executive orders.
All of those provisions are currently in doubt as Kelly vowed to make a third disaster declaration even as Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt on May 20 issued an opinion calling into question her authority to do so without legislative approval.
Not only did Kelly veto the bill, but the action abruptly withdrew her oft-modified “Ad Astra Plan” leaving decisions on reopening and social distancing entirely to county health officers — some of whom have had a history of overreach.
KMBC-TV reports that Kelly said she is removing the statewide order that moved the state from one phase to another. Instead, Kelly said she is making it a recommendation and leaving it up to individual counties to decide how to proceed. Kelly said she won’t make any order that restricts business activity.
House leadership blasted Kelly. Speaker Ron Ryckman, (R-Olathe), Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, (R-Wichita), and Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, (R-Ottawa), said Kelly has failed to provide leadership during the pandemic.
“In times of crisis and fear, leaders have an obligation to provide stability and take steps to protect the people they serve. Unfortunately, the actions taken today with a veto of HB 2054 do nothing but create more uncertainty and less stability for Kansas,” they said in a joint release. “Sadly, this has become routine. From the unnecessary lawsuit filed by the governor’s attorneys that jeopardized the first disaster declaration, an unemployment system that leaves those out of work guessing on when or if they will be paid, to a statewide four-phase plan that went from Phase 1 to Phase 1.5 to Phase 1.75/modified Phase 2 and then was suddenly, and with no warning, scrapped this afternoon, the one thing Kansans have not had is stability.”
Kelly issued a release late Tuesday, stating she was calling the Legislature back into session on June 3, to “put politics aside, work with her, and deliver an emergency management bill that has been vetted, debated, is transparent and addresses the need to keep Kansans safe and healthy.”
There is no official word, however as to why the Ad Astra Plan was scrapped, Kelly said in the press conference announcing the veto only that her administration would provide “guidance.” Whether that guidance has any legal standing absent an executive order may be an open question.
In her release, Kelly warns of dire consequences absent legislative action — however, most of the items she says will be imperiled were addressed in the bill she vetoed.
House leaders said this action leaves the state response in a state of near-chaos.
“The veto of this legislation creates unnecessary confusion about the status of the current disaster declaration, what orders are still in place, and what Kansans can expect going forward,” the statement read. “They deserve better than that and we will continue to work with all parties in state and local government to provide it.”
Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) minced no words in her response.
“Despite her derogatory politically motivated statements about the legislature, along with [a] few downright inaccuracies, I’m very thankful she’s conceded to our position. She sent authority back to the counties. We’ve been saying it all along; one size doesn’t fit all and today locals won that right.
It is, however, a shame the Governor spent more than half her time at the podium today insulting her legislative partners who represent the people, rather than explaining specifically what this new order will mean for people’s daily lives and businesses.
Kansans crave stability and clear guidance. I hope this Governor has learned Kansans will keep pushing until their voices are heard.”
Kansas Chamber disappointed with veto; cautions counties
Kansas Chamber CEO Alan Cobb expressed disappointment with Kelly’s veto.
“While not perfect, this legislation would have provided certainty for Kansans and for the state’s business community during these uncertain times,” said Chamber President and CEO Alan Cobb. “It is our hope Gov. Kelly and the Kansas Legislature work quickly together during the special session to resolve the issues between them and provide Kansans and the state’s business community the assurances needed to safely move our economy forward.”
Cobb also sent a warning to local authorities.
“There is recourse if a county or local health officer becomes too restrictive or unreasonable,” said Cobb. “Orders issued by counties, so far, have implicated some due process requirements. While counties can regulate public gatherings, the previous county orders also invoked the ability of counties to isolate individuals and make them stay home. Under those powers, Kansas businesses and individuals who believe they are unreasonably burdened by overly-restrictive orders generally have the right to a judicial hearing within 72 hours under K.S.A. 65-129c.”