Lawmakers near deal on emergency powers as session looms

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Less than 24 hours before the start of a special legislative session, Kansas lawmakers appear close to a deal on how to respond to Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a bill limiting her emergency powers.

After meeting with Kelly for a couple hours last Thursday to iron out their differences with the governor, Republican leaders from the House and Senate have been working on a compromise that some said looks pretty close to the bill she already vetoed.

A draft of the proposal was circulated to key House and Senate members to review Tuesday afternoon with the state’s 24th special legislative session set to begin at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the new proposal to the bill that the governor vetoed last week. The comparison, however, is fluid and can change because of drafting errors or as negotiations evolve.

Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Republican leaders had “full agreement” with the governor on key areas, including oversight of federal coronavirus relief funding and the governor’s emergency powers.

He said they were 99.5% in agreement as of late Tuesday afternoon on liability protections for businesses and health care providers.

“I think you will be very pleased with the product,” Longbine told the panel.

Jeff Longbine

“We were able to articulate and keep most of the legislative concerns that we had and those areas where we had a difference of opinion we were able to come to a conclusion and work those out.”

Longbine said Republican leaders talked with the governor’s top aides  – Chief of Staff Will Lawrence and Legislative Director Tim Graham – throughout the weekend into the start of this work week.

He said he received text messages as late as 11:30 p.m. Monday as the negotiations continued into the new week.

He credited Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch for bringing his legal skills to the process to  work with Lawrence – also a lawyer – and craft the wording of the bill.

In short, here are some of the things the proposed bill would do:

  • Would require the State Finance Council to approve the spending of federal coronavirus relief funding with a simple majority. The governor’s administration can recommend how to spend the money but with legislative oversight.
  • Ratifies, continues and extends the governor’s emergency declaration issued on March 12 through Sept. 15 of this year.
  • The State Finance Council would need to approve any new state of disaster emergency declaration related to COVID-19 through 2020.
  • After Sept. 15, the governor would need State Finance Council approval to extend an emergency declaration for specified periods not to exceed 30 days. No extension can go beyond Jan. 26, 2021.
  • The governor may not order the closure of any business or commercial activity for more than 15 days starting on or after Sept. 15 during an emergency declaration.
  • The governor would be required to consult with the State Finance Council at least 24 hours before ordering businesses to close.
  • The governor would be required to ask the State Finance Council for permission to order the closure of businesses for specified periods of not more than 30 days after the first 15 days lapsed. Approval would need six votes on the council.
  • Authorizes counties to adopt public health orders that are less rigorous than a statewide order, but must make certain findings first.
  • The Board of County Commissioners can review, amend or revoke any order issued by the county health officer.
  • The state Board of Education would need to approve a governor’s order to close schools.
  • The bill would provide lawsuit immunity to all health care providers, excluding nursing homes, from claims alleging substandard care for treatment of COVID-19 patients, with gross negligence as an exception.
  • Nursing homes would be given an affirmative defense to liability in a civil action for damages, administrative fines and penalties for claims stemming from exposure to COVID-19 under certain conditions.
  • The legislation also would protect manufacturers and sellers of personal protection equipment from product liability lawsuits if they provided the product at the direction of the governor or state emergency management officials, unless they knew the product was defective and ignored the risk  it would hurt someone.

The legislation, especially the breadth of the bill, left some lawmakers concerned with the constitutionality of packing different topics into one bill.

Others complained that the legislation already looked a lot like that what governor vetoed and then criticized the Legislature for passing.

Republican state Sen. Eric Rucker blasted the governor for condemning the Legislature for  meeting around the clock to pass legislation that looks close to what was presented to lawmakers on Tuesday as a bipartisan compromise.

Eric Rucker

“The content of this bill does not match the imprudent, the inflammatory, the intemperate remarks of the governor as it relates to our work product,” Rucker said.

“If this is all of the differences that exist between what it is that we produced in  conference committee and was acted on by the Senate and the House…the governor’s reaction to our work product and the denigration that she held this body up to absolutely makes no sense,” he said.

Over in the House Judiciary Committee, Republican state Rep. Russ Jennings suggested that the bill needed to be broke down into segments.

“It strikes me that there are at least three, if not four, different subject matter topics that are included in this one bill,” Jennings said.

“I totally understand the idea that there may be some economy and some overarching circumstance – COVID-19  pandemic – that all of this falls within,” he said.

“It strikes me that these ought to be broken down into separate pieces. If it takes four bills, it takes four bills.”