Mar 23, 2020 9:00 PM

Pandemic spurs Kansas lawmakers to rethink governor's power

Posted Mar 23, 2020 9:00 PM
Governor Laura Kelly on Friday address the potential impact of the novel coronavirus on Kansas economy.
Governor Laura Kelly on Friday address the potential impact of the novel coronavirus on Kansas economy.

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Some Kansas legislators say they didn’t understand how much power the governor has in emergencies until Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly closed K-12 schools for the rest of the semester and ordered a six-week halt to new evictions and mortgage foreclosures amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Kansas is typical in granting its governor broad, temporary powers to deal with an emergency. Other governors have closed schools, directed non-essential businesses to shut down temporarily and banned public gatherings. Kansas law allows the governor to do the same, and conservative Republican lawmakers fear how far Kelly might go. They’re likely to push to rewrite the law on a governor’s emergency powers after the immediate crisis passes.

State law permits the governor to cordon off a city, bar people from entering or leaving and restrict their movements within its limits. She can suspend state regulations, force people to evacuate their homes, commandeer private property and ban the sale of alcohol.

And, under a state of emergency, the governor can exercise powers “necessary to promote and secure the safety and protection of the civilian population.”

“You could shut the whole state down,” said state Sen. Ty Masterson, a conservative Andover Republican.

Kansas has had one COVID-19 related death and dozens of confirmed coronavirus cases. The vast majority of infected people recover, and many develop mild or moderate symptoms, but some develop serious illnesses, particularly older adults and people with underlying health issues.

Kelly declared a state of emergency for Kansas last week over the outbreak. It was set to expire Friday but lawmakers, knowing the pandemic hasn’t crested, extended it to at least May 1 and allowed legislative leaders to keep extending it, 30 days at a time.

Conservatives like Masterson sought to curb Kelly’s power by adding language to the resolution extending the state of emergency to bar her from seizing property, limiting access to communities or exercising the sweeping power to do what’s necessary to protect the public. Their effort failed, but the resolution requires legislative leaders to review all of her orders and gives them power to revoke many of them within days.

Republicans who backed limiting the governor’s power argued that they want to prevent abuses. They were taken aback by Kelly’s decision to close school buildings for at least two months, rather than just a few weeks.

“We are in a situation that we have not faced before in this state,” said conservative Republican Sen. Caryn Tyson, of Parker. “Do we run reckless as leaders, or do we take a diligent look at what we are turning — authority — over to our governor?”

Democrats agree that there’s value in reviewing an emergency powers law enacted 45 years ago to see whether it can be updated or improved. Kelly said she has no problem with a re-examining the law but said it should be done thoughtfully “rather than on the fly.”

She also said in a recent interview, “They never bothered to look until it was me.”

Democratic lawmakers said conservatives gave Republican Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer a pass in past emergencies and Kelly is doing what’s necessary to check the coronavirus epidemic.

“They need on quit being childish and get focused on getting the things in place to help our citizens NOW,” said Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat. “It starts with our schools, our public places, our big social events — concerts, gatherings, whatever. Yeah, if you’re going to try to flatten the curve, you’d better get on those things in the beginning.”

And Rep. Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said Kelly’s order to close schools for the rest of the spring “put us ahead of the curve.”

“That is an absolutely necessary step,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before other states follow our lead.”

But even some lawmakers who thought conservatives were trying to go too far in curbing the governor’s power said the coronavirus pandemic raises questions about a governor’s authority because it is far more widespread than disasters such as tornadoes or flooding.

“You’re talking about something that is invisible. And where will it pop up next? Where will see new cases? Who’s spreading it?” said House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican.

“All of those questions make it more difficult and, I think, people even more afraid of an exercise of authority that may go beyond, ‘We’re going to close downtown because a tornado came through and, you know, there are live power lines in the street.’”

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Continue Reading Salina Post
Mar 23, 2020 9:00 PM
UPDATE: What Kansans need to know about the COVID-19 coronavirus
Health officials say one way to stop the spread of the new coronavirus is to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Celia Llopis-Jepsen / Kansas News Service

Kansas News Service

The new coronavirus is spreading quickly around the world, including across Kansas, and setting off a range of responses.

The Kansas News Service is boiling down key developments in the state and updating the status regularly here. To read this information in Spanish, go here. This list was last updated at 2:10 p.m. March 31.

CASES AND DEATHS

430 cases, including two from out of state (see map for counties)

9 deaths (4 in Wyandotte County, 3 in Johnson County, 1 each in Sedgwick and Crawford counties)

NOTE: These figures only include cases confirmed with lab tests and do not represent the real, unknown total. Community transmission is occurring in parts of Kansas.

STATEWIDE ORDER TO STAY HOME

Gov. Laura Kelly is instituting a statewide stay-at-home order as of 12:01 a.m. March 30. It will last until at least April 19. Stay-at-home orders allow people to take care of essential activities (such as grocery shopping or going to work) as well as exercise outside, but otherwise keep to themselves. 

The state’s stay-at-home order supersedes at least 13 county-by-county orders. Should the state’s order lift before a county’s is through, the county can choose to keep its own in effect.

SHOULD I SELF-QUARANTINE?

For the whole state: The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is now mandating home quarantine for 14 days if you've traveled to the places listed below. If you come down with symptoms (such as a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, coughing or shortness of breath) during those 14 days, contact your health care provider and explain your potential COVID-19 exposure.  

  1. Louisiana or anywhere in Colorado on or after March 27.
  2. States with known widespread community transmission (California, Florida, New York and Washington) on or after March 15.
  3. Illinois or New Jersey on or after March 23.
  4. Eagle, Summit, Pitkin and Gunnison counties in Colorado (if your visit was March 8th or later).
  5. Cruise ships or river cruises on or after March 15. Anyone previously told to quarantine because of their cruise ship travel should also finish out their quarantine.
  6. International destinations on or after March 15. Anyone previously told to quarantine because of their international travel should also finish out their quarantine.

TESTING AVAILABILITY

As of March 27, Kansas health secretary Lee Norman said the state lab was handling 175 samples a day. But Kansas will receive more equipment within about a week that will let it handle 700 to 1,000 samples daily, though shortages of specialized supplies such as nose swabs may still hamper work at times. 

Norman said there’s enough capacity in the state, now that testing has ramped up through commercial labs and hospitals. State testing is reserved for high-risk groups, such as sick nursing home residents and health care workers. Others can ask their doctor or nurse practitioner to order through private labs.

What Kansas still lacks is enough testing material to study COVID-19 rates among people without symptoms.

KANSAS HAS DECLARED A STATE OF EMERGENCY. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

It gives the state government more power to marshal resources and triggers the state's response plan. The state Legislature has extended Kelly's declaration through May (and can extend it), with the aim of giving her the ability to make certain decisions when lawmakers aren’t in session.

On March 22, Kelly eased state rules to expand the use of telemedicine, to temporarily license more health workers and to allow heavier trucks on Kansas highways hauling relief supplies. On March 23, she ordered a ban on evictions if a tenant was unable to pay because of the coronavirus crisis. And she extended the income tax filing deadline to July 15, in line with a delay for filing federal tax forms.

HOW ARE UNIVERSITIES RESPONDING?

K-State, University of Kansas and Wichita State: All of them will go fully online for the end of the school year. Students at K-State and KU will need special exemptions to remain in dorms.

Other colleges: Washburn and Fort Hays State are online. Newman University expanded spring break for two weeks (March 14 to March 29). Johnson County Community College will close campus from March 14-29, and all courses will restart online March 30. Pittsburg State started break a day early and will resume classes indefinitely online on March 30.

HOW ABOUT K-12 SCHOOLS?

Gov. Laura Kelly and Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson have shut down all K-12 schools, public, private and parochial, for the rest of the 2019-20 school year. They had initially issued a strong recommendation that schools close March 16 through 20. 

Some county health departments had already issued similar orders. 

A Kansas State Department of Education task force has issued guidance to school districts on how to continue some amount of student learning. 

WHAT’S BEEN CANCELED OR SUSPENDED?

The governor’s executive order temporarily banning landlords from evicting businesses or residential tenants is effective until May 1. That same order put in a moratorium on any mortgage foreclosures through the same period.

The governor mandated on March 23, through an executive order, that gatherings be restricted to less than 10 people.

Kansas state workers: Access to the Statehouse is limited to official business only, and lawmakers went on break early. Kelly wanted most state employees to stay home for at least two weeks starting March 23.

State prisons: The Kansas Department of Corrections ended visitation at all state facilities, and will “re-evaluate on an ongoing basis.” It urges families to talk to inmates through email, phone calls and video visits. 

Electric companies: Evergy, which serves 950,000 customers in Kansas, will not disconnect residential or business services for an unspecified amount of time due to the “unprecedented challenge” of coronavirus that “may result in customers facing unexpected or unusual financial strain.”

Casinos: All four state-owned gaming facilities will close at the end of business on March 17, and remain so until at least March 30.

Public events: Many events and public places around the state have been canceled until at least the end of March. 

Sports: The Kansas State High School Athletics Association canceled the state basketball tournament midway through it. And the Big 12 suspended spring sports until March 29.  

HOW BAD IS THE VIRUS? 

COVID-19 usually causes mild to moderate symptoms, like a fever or cough. Most people with mild symptoms recover in two weeks. More severe cases, found in older adults and people with health issues, can have up to six weeks’ recovery time or can lead to death.

HOW CAN YOU AVOID IT?

  1. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Frequently.
  2. Cover your coughs.
  3. If you’re an older Kansan or medically fragile, put off any vacations and limit your trips to the grocery store or any public space.
  4. Stay home if you are sick — this goes for all ages.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON COVID-19

Kansas Department of Health and Environment: http://www.kdheks.gov/coronavirus/

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.