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Supporters ram coronavirus plan through Kansas Legislature

June 5, 2020 GMT
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, explains his vote in favor of a bipartisan coronavirus bill as Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, listens Thursday, June 4, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Legislators passed a bill that gives their leaders oversight of the state's response to the pandemic. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
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Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, explains his vote in favor of a bipartisan coronavirus bill as Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, listens Thursday, June 4, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Legislators passed a bill that gives their leaders oversight of the state's response to the pandemic. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
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Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, explains his vote in favor of a bipartisan coronavirus bill as Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, listens Thursday, June 4, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Legislators passed a bill that gives their leaders oversight of the state's response to the pandemic. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Supporters rammed a bipartisan plan through the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature on Thursday aimed at giving lawmakers some oversight of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s response to the novel coronavirus after cutting off a debate over preventing pandemic-related lawsuits.

The measure gives legislative leaders a say in how $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds are spent, limits Kelly’s power to close businesses and provides some protection from lawsuits to businesses, medical providers and nursing homes. The measure resulted from negotiations between top Republican legislators and Kelly and her staff.

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Kelly called the bill a “victory for Kansans” and said in a statement, “I will sign this legislation.”

Kelly vetoed an earlier measure that would have curbed her power to direct the state’s coronavirus response, passed by Republicans last month in the final moments of the Legislature’s annual session. She called a special legislative session to get lawmakers to extend a state of emergency for the pandemic due to expire Wednesday.

The governor made key concessions, ending statewide restrictions on businesses May 26 and agreeing to limits on her power and restrictions on lawsuits that she and other Democrats opposed. The bill extends the state of emergency until Sept. 15 and allows it to continue into late January 2021 if legislative leaders consent.

“On balance, it’s where we need to be,” said Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat. “It’s better, perhaps, than we’ve had and the best we’re going to get.”

The vote Thursday in the Senate was 26-12 and came after the House approved the bill Wednesday night, 107-12. After the bill passed, lawmakers adjourned their two-day special session.

Supporters in the Senate forced it to vote without a debate — cutting off any chance for critics to try to change its contents. Kelly’s staff made it clear to legislators that if they gave businesses and nursing homes greater protections from lawsuits, she’d likely veto the measure.

“There’s a queen bee, and the drones do exactly what they’re told,” said conservative Republican Sen. Dennis Pyle, of Hiawatha. “The people of Kansas don’t elect us to come up here and be drones.”

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican who helped negotiate the new plan, said lawmakers had thoroughly vetted the issues previously and supporters “just wanted to get our work done.”

Kelly had been locked for weeks in a partisan dispute with top Republicans over how quickly to reopen the state’s economy. She imposed a statewide stay-at-home order from March 30 through May 3 and initially had planned to keep some restrictions on businesses and mass gatherings in place until at least June 23.

But after vetoing the GOP’s first coronavirus plan, she abruptly changed course and allowed the state’s 105 counties to set the rules. The dispute over closing businesses then faded.

The bill approved Thursday would prohibit Kelly from closing businesses until Sept. 15. After that, she could close them statewide but would have to have legislative leaders’ approval to do so for more than 15 days.

She also would be prohibited from altering the timing of elections or ordering voting solely by mail balloting, and she could not restrict the sale or movement of guns and ammunition. She has not suggested she would do either.

Some Republicans said the new bill is almost identical to the one Kelly vetoed but others saw it as an improvement.

“We’re in a better position than we were,” said Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican who also helped negotiate the plan. “We’ve accomplished what we needed to accomplish.”

Republicans and business and medical groups across the nation have made barring coronavirus-related lawsuits a priority. They want to protect doctors and hospitals that delayed non-coronavirus care, businesses with customers or employees who get infected as the economy reopens and makers of personal protective equipment used by people who get infected.

Nursing homes have been hit hard, accounting in Kansas for 117 of the state’s 222 COVID-19-related deaths reported as of Wednesday.

Industry officials wanted protections like the ones for medical providers but instead got a lesser version, protecting them from paying damages if they can show in court that they followed health and safety guidelines. Critics who wanted stronger protections said nursing homes, particularly in rural areas, could be put out of business.

“The adult care home provider community was deliberately excluded from the backroom negotiations,” said Debra Harmon Zehr, President and CEO of the group representing nonprofit Kansas homes.

Trial lawyers and some Democrats said the bill would prevent businesses and others from being held accountable for negligence or misconduct.

“Kansas workers, senior care home residents and most other Kansans are the losers,” said David Morantz, president of the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association.

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Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna