Mar 23, 2020 9:00 PM

Pandemic spurs Kansas lawmakers to rethink governor's power

Posted Mar 23, 2020 9:00 PM
Governor Laura Kelly on Friday address the potential impact of the novel coronavirus on Kansas economy.
Governor Laura Kelly on Friday address the potential impact of the novel coronavirus on Kansas economy.

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Some Kansas legislators say they didn’t understand how much power the governor has in emergencies until Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly closed K-12 schools for the rest of the semester and ordered a six-week halt to new evictions and mortgage foreclosures amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Kansas is typical in granting its governor broad, temporary powers to deal with an emergency. Other governors have closed schools, directed non-essential businesses to shut down temporarily and banned public gatherings. Kansas law allows the governor to do the same, and conservative Republican lawmakers fear how far Kelly might go. They’re likely to push to rewrite the law on a governor’s emergency powers after the immediate crisis passes.

State law permits the governor to cordon off a city, bar people from entering or leaving and restrict their movements within its limits. She can suspend state regulations, force people to evacuate their homes, commandeer private property and ban the sale of alcohol.

And, under a state of emergency, the governor can exercise powers “necessary to promote and secure the safety and protection of the civilian population.”

“You could shut the whole state down,” said state Sen. Ty Masterson, a conservative Andover Republican.

Kansas has had one COVID-19 related death and dozens of confirmed coronavirus cases. The vast majority of infected people recover, and many develop mild or moderate symptoms, but some develop serious illnesses, particularly older adults and people with underlying health issues.

Kelly declared a state of emergency for Kansas last week over the outbreak. It was set to expire Friday but lawmakers, knowing the pandemic hasn’t crested, extended it to at least May 1 and allowed legislative leaders to keep extending it, 30 days at a time.

Conservatives like Masterson sought to curb Kelly’s power by adding language to the resolution extending the state of emergency to bar her from seizing property, limiting access to communities or exercising the sweeping power to do what’s necessary to protect the public. Their effort failed, but the resolution requires legislative leaders to review all of her orders and gives them power to revoke many of them within days.

Republicans who backed limiting the governor’s power argued that they want to prevent abuses. They were taken aback by Kelly’s decision to close school buildings for at least two months, rather than just a few weeks.

“We are in a situation that we have not faced before in this state,” said conservative Republican Sen. Caryn Tyson, of Parker. “Do we run reckless as leaders, or do we take a diligent look at what we are turning — authority — over to our governor?”

Democrats agree that there’s value in reviewing an emergency powers law enacted 45 years ago to see whether it can be updated or improved. Kelly said she has no problem with a re-examining the law but said it should be done thoughtfully “rather than on the fly.”

She also said in a recent interview, “They never bothered to look until it was me.”

Democratic lawmakers said conservatives gave Republican Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer a pass in past emergencies and Kelly is doing what’s necessary to check the coronavirus epidemic.

“They need on quit being childish and get focused on getting the things in place to help our citizens NOW,” said Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat. “It starts with our schools, our public places, our big social events — concerts, gatherings, whatever. Yeah, if you’re going to try to flatten the curve, you’d better get on those things in the beginning.”

And Rep. Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said Kelly’s order to close schools for the rest of the spring “put us ahead of the curve.”

“That is an absolutely necessary step,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before other states follow our lead.”

But even some lawmakers who thought conservatives were trying to go too far in curbing the governor’s power said the coronavirus pandemic raises questions about a governor’s authority because it is far more widespread than disasters such as tornadoes or flooding.

“You’re talking about something that is invisible. And where will it pop up next? Where will see new cases? Who’s spreading it?” said House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican.

“All of those questions make it more difficult and, I think, people even more afraid of an exercise of authority that may go beyond, ‘We’re going to close downtown because a tornado came through and, you know, there are live power lines in the street.’”

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Continue Reading Great Bend Post
Mar 23, 2020 9:00 PM
UPDATE: What Kansans need to know about the COVID-19 coronavirus
Health officials say one way to stop the spread of the new coronavirus is to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Celia Llopis-Jepsen / Kansas News Service

Kansas News Service

Note: A Spanish-language version of this article can be found HERE.

The new coronavirus is spreading quickly around the world, including across Kansas, and setting off a range of responses.

The Kansas News Service is boiling down key developments in the state and updating the status regularly here. To read this information in Spanish, go here. This list was last updated at 4:10 p.m. April 7.

CASES AND DEATHS

900 cases (see map for counties) and 223 hospitalizations

27 deaths  (the state is no longer disclosing which counties are seeing deaths)

NOTE: These figures only include cases confirmed with lab tests and do not represent the real, unknown total. Community transmission is occurring in parts of Kansas. View additional charts showing the disease’s spread over time and other trends here.

Gov. Laura Kelly is instituting a statewide stay-at-home order as of 12:01 a.m. March 30. It will last until at least April 19. Stay-at-home orders allow people to take care of essential activities (such as grocery shopping or going to work) as well as exercise outside, but otherwise keep to themselves. 

The state’s stay-at-home order supersedes at least 13 county-by-county orders. Should the state’s order lift before a county’s is through, the county can choose to keep its own in effect.

SHOULD I SELF-QUARANTINE?

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is now mandating home quarantine for 14 days if you've traveled to the places listed below. If you come down with symptoms (such as a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, coughing or shortness of breath) during those 14 days, contact your health care provider and explain your potential COVID-19 exposure.  

  1. Connecticut on or after April 6.
  2. Louisiana or anywhere in Colorado on or after March 27.
  3. States with known widespread community transmission (California, Florida, New York and Washington) on or after March 15.
  4. Illinois or New Jersey on or after March 23.
  5. Eagle, Summit, Pitkin and Gunnison counties in Colorado (if your visit was March 8th or later).
  6. Cruise ships or river cruises on or after March 15. Anyone previously told to quarantine because of their cruise ship travel should also finish out their quarantine.
  7. International destinations on or after March 15. Anyone previously told to quarantine because of their international travel should also finish out their quarantine.

Some doctors recommend patients with COVID-19 symptoms stay home even if they test negative for the disease, because of concerns that current testing approaches may be producing a significant number of false negatives.

TESTING AVAILABILITY

Several hospitals across the state now offer drive-through testing, but patients must get doctor approval in advance or else will be turned away. Many Kansans can’t be tested unless they’re sick enough to be hospitalized, and results may take up to a week. 

That’s because testing supplies remain limited and private labs helping many clinics and hospitals have large backlogs of samples. Hospitals trying to buy equipment for in-house testing say vendors are backlogged, too. The state will soon have several portable machines that can conduct 5- to 15-minute tests, and plans to lend them out to facilities most in need.

Some Kansas hospitals have succeeded in getting the testing materials and can give patients their results within a day. The state health department lab in Topeka can handle several hundred samples per day — a fraction of the demand.

Under a new federal law, you should not have to pay for your coronavirus test, regardless of insurance status (but patients could still see related bills). Separately, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas, the state’s largest private insurer, says some patients won’t have to pay for coronavirus treatment.

HOW ARE UNIVERSITIES RESPONDING?

Public and private universities and community colleges in the state will finish this semester via online classes. Spring sports have been canceled. Most staff travel has been suspended. Graduations at KU, K-State and Wichita State are postponed or rescheduled.

The University of Kansas and Wichita State also plan to hold summer classes online. KU and K-State announced hiring freezes in early April. 

HOW ABOUT K-12 SCHOOLS?

In mid-March, Kansas became the first state in the U.S. to shut down school buildings for the rest of the 2019-20 school year. A state task force then issued guidance for distance learning, for which students aren’t expected to spend more than a few hours a day. 

Some districts that make high schoolers earn more credits than required by the state will graduate them this year based on the state’s lower bar. 

Districts across the state are still providing free meals to eligible children, but some have stopped because of concerns about the coronavirus spreading at meal pickup sites.

WHAT IN DAY-TO-DAY LIFE IS AFFECTED? 

  1. Church gatherings and funerals: Effective April 8, the governor has prohibited services of more than 10 people. That doesn’t count people performing the rituals or funeral workers, but they must stay six feet apart from each other.
  2. State tax deadline: Extended until July 15, in line with a delay for filing federal tax forms.
  3. Evictions: Business and residential evictions are banned until May 1 if a tenant is unable to pay because of the coronavirus.
  4. Mortgage foreclosures: Foreclosures are banned until May 1.
  5. Small businesses: May be eligible for emergency federal loans. Find information here.
  6. Hospitality businesses: Kansas created an emergency loan program, which quickly ran out of funds, but businesses can still apply to help the state assess the need for more assistance.
  7. Utilities: Evergy, which serves 950,000 customers in Kansas, will not disconnect residential or business services for an unspecified amount of time. 
  8. Gatherings: Restricted to fewer than 10 people throughout the state.
  9. State of emergency: Kansas’ declaration is good through May (and can be extended). It gives the government more power to marshal resources and Kelly the ability to make certain decisions when lawmakers aren’t in session.
  10. State workers: Access to the Statehouse is limited to official business only through April 19. Most state workers are doing their jobs remotely.
  11. Prisons and jails: The Kansas Department of Corrections ended visitation at all state facilities, and will “re-evaluate on an ongoing basis.” It urges families to talk to inmates through email, phone calls and video visits. County jails largely have ended visitations as well. 

HOW BAD IS THE VIRUS? 

COVID-19 usually causes mild to moderate symptoms, like a fever or cough. Most people with mild symptoms recover in two weeks. More severe cases, found in older adults and people with health issues, can have up to six weeks’ recovery time or can lead to death.

HOW CAN YOU AVOID IT?

  1. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Frequently.
  2. Cover your coughs.
  3. The CDC now recommends wearing a cloth mask in situations where social distancing isn’t possible; instructions for sewn and non-sewn versions are here.
  4. If you’re an older Kansan or medically fragile, limit your trips to the grocery store or any public space.
  5. Stay home if you are sick — this goes for all ages.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON COVID-19

Kansas Department of Health and Environment: http://www.kdheks.gov/coronavirus/

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.