TOPEKA (AP) — As most of the U.S. raced to get ahead of the coronavirus pandemic, conservative Republican lawmakers in Kansas moved Wednesday to limit their Democratic governor’s emergency powers, including the ability to establish quarantine zones if the need arises.
Conservatives are angry with Gov. Laura Kelly's order to close all of the state's K-12 school buildings for the rest of the spring semester. They view it both as an overreaction that is fueling panic and a sign that she's willing to have state government move aggressively into people's businesses and lives.
Some of her most conservative critics also suggested that Kelly's bold action on the coronavirus suggests that she might go after firearms and try to limit their sale. She's never mentioned that she was considering anything like that and despite her past support for gun-rights measures as a legislator.
Kelly declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic last week to mobilize state resources, but it will expire March 27 unless legislators pass a resolution extending it. Lawmakers are now set to have the GOP-controlled Legislature's leaders scrutinize all of Kelly's future coronavirus orders and to give them the power to revoke many of them within days.
House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, who helped draft the final version, told fellow Republicans that the goal is to address the pandemic with "the lightest touch possible.”
“There is a concern about civil liberties, a concern about the proper exercise of government authority and not wanting it to be too extreme,” said Finch, an eastern Kansas attorney.
Kansas has had more than 20 confirmed coronavirus cases and one COVID-19-related death. The vast majority of infected people recover, and most have only mild or moderate symptoms, but some victims, especially older adults or people with other health problems, develop a serious illness.
The House approved a version of the resolution last week as a straightforward extension of Kelly's state of emergency into January 2021.
The Senate on Wednesday passed its version limiting Kelly's power, 37-2, with most Democrats reluctantly voting yes because failing to pass it risks jeopardizing federal disaster relief funds. The two chambers then negotiated a compromise Wednesday night, with final votes in both chambers expected Thursday.
The state of emergency would last until May 1, but legislative leaders could approve further extensions every 30 days.
The Senate approved language from conservatives to strip Kelly of power governors have had in other emergencies. Among those powers are the authority to say who goes into or out of a disaster area and to restrict movement within an area. She also would lose the governor's broad power to act to “promote and secure the safety and protection of the civilian population.”
Conservatives argued that Kelly's bold moves, and similar actions in other states, are unnecessarily torpedoing the economy and isolating people.
“They'll riot. They'll be breaking into grocery stores," Sen. Rob Olson, a Kansas City-area Republican said, his voice rising in frustration. “They'll be breaking into people's houses to steal toilet paper.”
State Sen. Mike Thompson, another Kansas City-area Republican, urged caution in dealing with the pandemic because, “It may not be nearly as a bad as we think."
Democrats warned that the Senate's language could limit Kelly's ability to set up quarantine zones around communities in crisis.
“There are good reasons for what the governor did,” said state Sen. Tom Holland, a Democrat from the state's northeast. "We've all just got to get over it.
Republican state Sen. Dennis Pyle, also from northeastern Kansas, successfully sought the gun-rights provision. It would prevent Kelly from using the emergency declaration to confiscate guns or ammunition or halt their sale or transportation.
When her office was asked about the provision, Kelly called for lawmakers to “put political differences aside.” But Pyle's language remained in the resolution.
Democrats remained frustrated that Kelly will face what House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, called “extra hoops” in addressing the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Democratic state Sen. Mary Ware, of Wichita, said she learned Wednesday that a visitor to her Statehouse office last week was being tested for coronavirus.
“This is not something to take as theoretical, certainly not as a hoax,” Ware said.