TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas’ Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday vetoed a sweeping coronavirus measure passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, ratcheting up a partisan dispute over her response to the pandemic and possibly setting up a court fight over her power to direct it.
Kelly not only vetoed the measure approved by lawmakers in the last moments of their 2020 session to curb her emergency powers, but also issued a new emergency declaration to replace one that was set to expire.
Many Republicans believe she doesn’t have the legal authority to do that.
Kelly also is heightening the conflict by calling the Legislature back into special session on June 3 to tackle coronavirus measures.
The bill was meant to shield businesses and health care providers from coronavirus-related lawsuits and take control of the state’s pandemic response from Gov. Laura Kelly, including decisions about how to spend $1.25 billion in federal relief funds.
The lawmakers’ last day in session lasted 24 hours straight. Kelly has called it the “most embarrassing, irresponsible display of government that we have witnessed throughout this ordeal.”
“The process was messy, confusing and complicated but it didn’t have to be,” Kelly said during a news conference Tuesday.
Democrats had objected to curbing Kelly’s power and shielding substandard nursing homes and manufacturers of defective personal protective equipment from liability.
Republicans believe Kelly has moved too slowly to reopen the state’s economy and has too aggressively imposed restrictions. She imposed a statewide stay-at-home order from March 30 until May 4 and plans to lift restrictions on businesses in phases through June 23.
Kelly joined fellow Democratic governors in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in facing a strong backlash from Republicans over their handling of the pandemic.
The others govern in swing states important to President Donald Trump’s reelection, but he won Kansas handily in 2016 and is expected to carry it again this year.
The bill approved Friday required Kelly to get permission from legislative leaders to keep businesses closed for more than 15 days or to exercise other broad powers granted to governors during emergencies after May 31. Counties that could document a case for lesser restrictions could impose them.
Shielding businesses from lawsuits is a priority of Republicans and business groups nationally. Unions said the bill could grant “total immunity” and called it dangerous.
Because legislators adjourned for the year, they cannot override a Kelly veto. Republicans had hoped that passing a bill would box Kelly in because her existing state of emergency was set to expire Tuesday.
The bill would have extended the state of emergency through May 31, then required Kelly to seek permission from the Legislature to extend it.
If the state of emergency had ended, some 30 orders that Kelly issued would expire, including those banning evictions for people who can’t pay their rent during the pandemic and prohibiting utility cutoffs.
State Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, issued a legal opinion last week saying Kansas law doesn’t allow multiple declarations during the same emergency. His opinion is non-binding, but could fuel legal challenges.
The state’s top health official meanwhile urged Kansans who joined large gatherings at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks during the Memorial Day weekend to self-quarantine for 14 days to prevent spreading the coronavirus.
Social media posts showed large crowds at pools, bars and restaurants near the lake without any social distancing or masks.
“The reckless behavior displayed during this weekend risks setting our community back substantially for the progress we’ve already made in slowing the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Lee Norman, Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
“If you traveled to Lake of the Ozarks over the weekend, we urge you to act responsibly and self-quarantine to protect your neighbors, coworkers and family.”