Kansas lawmakers discuss ending COVID-19 emergency, attempt override on last day of work
Kansas' COVID-19 emergency declaration remains in limbo as of Wednesday after initial discussions on whether to extend it by another month. A final decision will come Friday, when it's currently set to expire.
State lawmakers also used the ceremonial last day of the Kansas legislative session trying to override a veto and score some political points against Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
Under new law passed this year, Kelly has no say anymore in whether to extend the emergency beyond requesting an extension. It's in the hands of legislative leaders.
Maintaining the state's emergency declaration is important, proponents have said, so resources can be leveraged to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus is still around, and more contagious variants are circulating.
But before Wednesday, lawmakers told The Topeka Capital-Journal they were leaning toward not extending it.
"You have known ... that it was going to end on May 28," said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, to the governor's chief of staff. "I assume the administration you worked for would have done everything they could to wind down effective May 28."
Still, lawmakers pushed the decision back to Friday, as GOP leaders tossed around other ideas of how to handle the extension. Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, hinted at potentially negotiating with the governor's office, extending the declaration in return for dropping extended unemployment benefits.
The governor's chief of staff, Will Lawrence, said the governor's office would want to keep the two issues separate.
House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, asked questions that opened the possibility of keeping the declaration in place, but removing most if not all of the governor's executive orders.
Some were concerned what the end of the emergency might mean practically. Of the governor's ongoing executive orders, notable ones include an evictions moratorium and a pause on the waiting week requirement for unemployment benefits.
Adjutant General David Weishaar said there could be limits on the state's recovery efforts, such as vaccine rollout and providing shelters. He said eligibility for federal assistance emergency funds could be in jeopardy, too.
"Without a disaster declaration, we're very limited in the responses, actions that can be facilitated across the state," he said.
At least a couple other states have already ended their COVID-19 emergencies, including nearby Oklahoma.
Veto override failure
The most concrete legislative action on Wednesday was trying (and failing) to override Kelly's veto on a bill expanding usage of short-term, limited-duration health plans.
Such insurance policies are intended as stop-gap measures, intended to provide low-cost insurance for folks in between jobs or nearing retirement. Due to this nature, short-term plans also provide less coverage than normal health insurance.
Currently in Kansas, such plans can only last either six or 12 months with one renewal allowed. The Senate bill would have extended that to the maximum, allowable three years.
Sen. Beverly Gossage, R-Eudora, had sponsored the bill and said it would make coverage more affordable as insurance costs increase. But critics have labeled it as "junk insurance" and said the bill would increase reliance on plans that don't cover pre-existing conditions.
The future of this bill rested on the Kansas House, where it hadn't passed with veto-proof majorities. The House remained resistant and didn't budge, and the veto held firm.
Business compensation and expanded unemployment benefits
The Legislature notably didn't take any action on another vetoed bill that would compensate businesses for government-imposed COVID-19 orders using federal relief funds.
The necessary number of votes to override that bill probably weren't there, but with SB 273 not law, a lawsuit between Kansas and a Wichita gym over damage from the virus shutdown is set to resume. More lawsuits against Kansas and its counties could come, business groups have warned.
"Politically, it is just better for us if she owns the fact she vetoed it," said Masterson, who added the Legislature might try to working something out with the governor's task force in charge of relief funding.
Finally, on a more political note, both chambers passed a resolution urging the governor to end the state's participation in expanded unemployment benefits brought about by the pandemic.
Businesses have had trouble filling positions as the economy tries to revive from the pandemic, and groups have blamed the extra benefits for incentivizing people to stay home. The state's Republican congressmen requested Kelly drop those benefits after other Republican-leaning states did so.
The resolution has no effect beyond making a statement.
"The pandemic is all but behind us," said Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stillwell. "We need to get Kansans back to work."
Progressives have blamed substandard wages and working conditions for the vacancies, and they say business owners should raise employees' pay. Kelly previously told reporters she was still weighing whether to drop the extra benefits and wanted to study the issue more.
"I have always researched the issues, figured out what to do and acted accordingly," Kelly said, "regardless of the political pressure that I get."
Capital-Journal reporter Andrew Bahl contributed reporting.