TOPEKA, Kan. — Top Republican lawmakers in Kansas moved aggressively Wednesday to take control of how the state reopens its coronavirus-battered economy from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, the latest of several power grabs by frustrated GOP-controlled legislatures.
Kelly and top Republicans disagree over how quickly to allow some businesses to reopen, with Republicans wanting to move faster. GOP leaders also are irritated with what they view as Kelly’s efforts to evade legislative oversight.
Six GOP leaders rejected a request from Kelly to have top lawmakers extend a disaster declaration she issued for the coronavirus pandemic into mid-June. The Republicans instead extended the declaration only through May 25, Memorial Day, to give the GOP-controlled Legislature a chance to pass a law governing the state’s coronavirus response.
“We won’t allow one dictator to determine everything,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, frequent Kelly critic and U.S. Senate candidate. “We will have a check and a balance of powers.”
The full Legislature is scheduled to reconvene May 21 for a final day in session this year, and House and Senate committees are meeting this week and next week to draft measures on a variety of issues, including the governor’s power. The Legislature began its annual spring break on March 20, about two weeks early, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Republican legislators’ efforts to undermine Democratic governors’ power have been pronounced in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all three of which have divided governments and are crucial in this year’s presidential race. Their governors have faced lawsuits, legislation and other moves by Republicans trying to seize control of the response to the virus.
Kansas legislators are trying to set up a situation in which they’d pass a measure curbing Kelly’s power and force her to either accept the limits or watch her current disaster declaration expire. During a contentious, hour-plus meeting, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Kansas City-area Republican, told Kelly it would be in her best interest to sign such legislation, and she bristled.
“My best interests are not what’s at stake here,” Kelly said. “It’s the best interests of the citizens of the state of Kansas, and I would like you all to consider that.”
Kansas reported 7.468 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases Wednesday, nearly double the number two weeks ago, with major outbreaks in meatpacking plants and nursing homes. The state has reported 164 COVID-19-related deaths since early March.
“I know that these decisions that have been made have caused great pain for a number folks, but I’d also like to think that it’s saved a number of lives,” she said.
State laws give Kelly broad authority in emergencies but also require her to ask eight legislative leaders, six of them Republicans, to extend an emergency declaration she issued April 30 for the pandemic. The declaration was set to expire May 14, and Kelly had planned to phase out restrictions on businesses and public gatherings until June 15 after allowing a statewide stay-at-home order expire May 4.
The legislative leaders’ meeting with Kelly gave top Republicans a chance to air grievances they’ve had with her throughout the pandemic. They’ve repeatedly said that Kelly has not consulted them on decisions.
They objected to an order that limited in-person religious gatherings to 10 congregation members, something she loosened up after two churches and their pastors filed a federal lawsuit. Wagle accused Kelly of “overreaching” in her orders.
And there’s the question of legislative oversight. Kelly issued her first disaster declaration in March, and the full Legislature extended it to May 1, agreeing to allow their leaders to extend it further but also giving them the authority to reject Kelly’s orders. When top Republicans attempted to overturn Kelly’s limit on religious gatherings, she sued, and the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the restrictions on technical grounds.
Kelly then issued her April 30 emergency declaration so that she could continue to exercise broad emergency powers after May 1. But in Kansas, such declarations expire after 15 days unless they’re extended by lawmakers or their leaders. Some Republicans question whether Kelly can keep issuing new declarations every 15 days during the same pandemic.
Her chief counsel, Clay Britton, acknowledged it’s an open question. Britton noted that legislators have extended emergency declarations regularly in the past. Neither of Kelly’s two Republican predecessors faced a similar backlash, nor did Kelly last year when dealing with flooding.
“A disaster involving a flood doesn’t include a governor’s executive order to criminalize going to church. It doesn’t shut down businesses,” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, another Wichita Republican. “There has to be some trust developed, and we don’t have that right now.”