Kansas Republican leaders end Gov. Kelly’s COVID-19 powers — here’s what it means

The Democratic governor has warred with Republican leaders in the Legislature over emergency orders throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Above, a protester outside the Topeka Statehouse in the spring of 2020. Photo credit Nomin Ujiyediin/Kansas News Service.

By Abigail Censky and Stephen Koranda 

Kansas lawmakers abruptly decided to end the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration Tuesday.

Republicans on the Legislative Coordinating Council canceled a meeting where they’d been set to consider Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s request for another extension.

That left the declaration to expire at midnight Tuesday more than 450 days after it was first issued, and further limited the governor’s waning powers to impose mask orders and take a range of other emergency actions.

The expiration will reverse all the governor’s executive orders issued in response to the pandemic. Lawmakers already had the power to overturn them.

Kelly said the move will hurt the state’s ability to respond to a health crisis and risk losing federal emergency funding amid efforts to vaccinate children before the coming school year.

“A state disaster response has never been, and should not be, political,” Kelly said in a statement. “The actions by a select few Republicans in the Legislature will make our response more difficult.”

Republican leaders push for ‘return to normal’

Republicans defended the move, saying they warned the governor last month that the previous extension of the declaration was likely her last.

Republican Senate President Ty Masterson and other key legislative leaders issued a statement that said the governor had not provided enough justification for another extension of the declaration.

“After 15 months, it is time for Kansas to return to normal,” the Senate GOP leaders said. “All remaining efforts related to COVID-19 can and should take place under our normal procedures.”

Kelly’s office had been planning to let most of the executive orders expire, seemingly as a concession to Republicans, but she wanted two to remain. Those set COVID testing standards for nursing homes hit hard by the virus and let more health care workers administer the COVID vaccine.

In addition, Kelly’s office said the move will take away expanded pandemic food stamp benefits that go to 63,000 Kansas homes.

Questions remain about whether the state can still get federal emergency response funding without the disaster declaration. The answer won’t be fully clear until later this summer.

Kelly will also lose the ability to rely on National Guard troops to assist. It’s been transporting equipment and helping run state vaccine clinics.

The governor’s chief of staff, Will Lawrence, told reporters that National Guard troops had been an effective asset during the pandemic. He said from May 28 to June 10, 28,000 cases of protective equipment went out to local governments and the state administered 5,000 vaccines.

“You have to find other people to do some of this work,” Lawrence said. “That’s probably the biggest challenge.”

Kelly urged for extension

In a letter to the panel sent Friday, Kelly pleaded with lawmakers to grant another extension of the state of emergency through July 15. Kelly argued extending the emergency was vital to continue vaccinating Kansans, especially school-aged children.

The governor’s office said that by June 11, roughly 20% of 12- to 17-year-old children in Kansas had been vaccinated against COVID-19. It said the biggest push to vaccinate Kansas kids would come around the return to school in August.

The letter was an olive branch to Republicans who had requested an exit strategy from the state of emergency weeks earlier. Kelly outlined ending many of the state’s response efforts in June and told lawmakers she’d let many of the executive orders expire.

Three top House Republicans on the panel, including Speaker Ron Ryckman, said the letter gave them confidence that the state could continue without the emergency declaration.

“What we received was an acknowledgment that nearly all executive orders could end immediately,” the leaders said in a statement.

Now, Kansas joins a handful of other states that have let emergency declarations lapse.

Potential ramifications

Kansas used the state of emergency to hire nurses to administer vaccines and scheduled 47 vaccine clinics with private employers. There were plans for 20 additional clinics before the end of July with the goal of vaccinating roughly 5,000 employees.

Now, it’s unclear where the state will get the staff and funding to conduct those clinics. It will likely fall on the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

“One of the questions has been, ‘Can we continue to do those?’” Lawrence said.

Dinah Sykes, the top-ranking Democrat in the state Senate, said letting the emergency declaration lapse marked a failure of Republican leadership.

“Future obstacles in our recovery,” she said, “lie squarely on their shoulders.”

Republican lawmakers and Kelly have repeatedly clashed over her response to the pandemic, especially requiring masks and closing businesses early in the outbreak.

Lawmakers have reined in the governor’s powers to respond, so they can now overturn many of her decisions. They wielded that power recently when blocking her latest statewide mask requirement.

Abigail Censky is the political reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @AbigailCensky or email her at abigailcensky@ kcur.org.

Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter and news editor for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @Stephen_Koranda or email him at stephenkoranda@kcur.org.

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. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.