Kansas GOP leaders preparing to end COVID state of emergency

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Top Republican legislators served notice Friday that they’re preparing to end Kansas’ state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic and accused Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of having no “exit strategy.”

Eight top leaders of the GOP-controlled Legislature, six of them Republicans, approved a shorter extension of the state of emergency than Kelly wanted, until June 15. The state of emergency was set to expire Friday, and state law required Kelly to get lawmakers’ approval to keep it in place. She sought the longest extension the law allows at one time, 30 days, until June 27.

Officials in Kelly’s administration told legislative leaders earlier this week that ending the state of emergency would jeopardize some federal funds, shut down the state’s emergency operations center and make it harder to share resources among state agencies and cities and counties.

But with new COVID-19 cases having dropped in recent months, top Republicans said they want emergency operations wound down. They said Kansas residents are tired of pandemic restrictions, though most have ended. They suggested that they were granting only one last extension to allow the state to wrap up emergency operations.

“I’m pretty much fed up with it,” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican. “There’s been no planning, and all we do is just keep things going and going and going.”

Republican lawmakers have been at odds with Kelly throughout the pandemic and have forced her to accept ever greater limits on her power in exchange for keeping the state of emergency in effect.

Democrats said it’s too soon to end the state of emergency because people are still being hospitalized and dying.

“We are not finished with this,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, describing the call to end the state of emergency as “ridiculous.”

The vote on the shorter extension was 6-2, along party lines.

By the same vote, legislative leaders rescinded an executive order from Kelly that had imposed a moratorium on evictions and home foreclosures for people who have financial problems because of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed its own ban through June, though it has been challenged in federal court.

Kelly spokesperson Reeves Oyster suggested that GOP leaders had decided to “kick people out of their homes” and were doing “what’s politically convenient” for them.

In a letter to legislative leaders Monday, Kelly said the state “has much essential work left to do,” particularly with vaccinations.

Her letter said that without an emergency declaration in place, the state’s Division of Emergency Management cannot assign emergency response tasks to other agencies. She said the state would have to stop using nurses under contract for vaccine clinics and stop delivering food in bulk to community food banks.

Kelly also said support from the state emergency operations center for distributing vaccine doses would end, putting the entire burden on the state health department. Agency spokesperson Kristi Zears said Thursday that the center is using a courier system to handle about 75% of the doses sent to health care providers.

The state health department has said reaching herd immunity would require 75% to 80% of the population to have COVID-19 antibodies, either from vaccinations or previous infections. As of Friday, 41.9% of the state’s 2.9 million residents had received at least one vaccine shot, and the rate of vaccinations had slowed. Reported COVID-19 cases equaled 10.8% of the population.

“I don’t think we can pretend to say, just magically say, ‘It’s over. It’s over.’” said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat.

But GOP leaders questioned whether the effects of ending the state of emergency would be as dire as Kelly suggests, and they argued that there’s far less need for an intense response now.

“It needs to be a very short extension with an exit strategy that everybody can understand and that the public can understand,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican.


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John Hanna
John Hanna
Kansas government and politics reporter