Capitol Update: Rep. Ousley discusses mask-wearing practices at legislature, says police should end neck restraining practices

Each week, we provide Shawnee Mission area legislators the opportunity to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Rep. Jarrod Ousley, Rep. Owen Donohoe, and Sen. Jim Denning are scheduled to send updates this week.

Below is the submission from Rep. Jarrod Ousley.

Thursday, May 21, was Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session, with no veto session to follow. Prior to the session we received an email with instructions for how voting would occur in order to maintain a semblance of social distancing between the 125 members of the House, and the 40 members of the Senate. We were to take turns voting in groups, spending the remainder of our time in our offices, wear masks, and have our temperature taken when we arrived.

However, these were suggestions, not mandatory. As the CDC currently recommends wearing a mask to protect those around you, and as the majority of the body is over the age of sixty, with various health concerns, one might hope that mask wearing and social distancing practices would be implemented in order to protect our fellow representatives prior to their travel across the state to their home communities, potentially spreading the virus from Topeka.

But it wasn’t, and the divide in mask wearing was predominantly split on party line, with the Democratic Caucus and only a handful of Republicans compliant. Several Rs refused to have their temperatures taken, remained in the chamber, clumping around the chamber entrance. This coupled with the “open up” protestors outside the capitol, and the conditions were frustratingly high risk for legislators doing their best to protect their loved ones at home.

On a party line vote, the Republican majority voted to eliminate the Bethel Midnight Rule, a rule that was implemented to end legislative activity after midnight, subsequent to Rep. Bethel dying in a single car accident driving home from session.

Republican leadership continued the session for a record breaking 24 hours, stripping the Governor’s powers under the Kansas Emergency Management Act by inserting, legislative committee oversight and veto power over current and future emergency responses, and creating a legislative oversight and approval role to manage federal pandemic recovery funding.

Critically, the bill was needed to extend the current emergency declaration, under which the Governor had the authority to issue the executive stay at home orders. This placed her in a difficult position. A bill that needed to be vetoed to avoid negative consequences for Kansas obtaining Federal recovery dollars to keep the state afloat, and with the veto, her stay at home orders would no longer be binding.

Ultimately, the Governor vetoed the bill, as the financial risks to the state were grim. Counties had the authority to issue their own emergency declarations, although the Johnson County Commission declined to do this, despite the efforts of some.

Thus, the risk imposed by the majority party was not contained in Topeka to legislators, but has now been imposed on the state as a whole. Dr. Norman warns we may see a large uptick in cases as a result.

The Governor has also called for a special session beginning June 3, to extend the emergency declaration. While it is unlikely other legislation will be worked, there is potentially a window of opportunity depending how long we are kept in Topeka.

Having returned home to self-isolate to mitigate my family’s risk, I attempted to get a Covid test, but was unable to as I am asymptomatic. At least one legislator who was symptomatic received a negative test result but was advised that negative results did not rule out contagion.

Watching the news cycle the last two weeks has been heartbreaking. Racist policing practices have continued to result in tragic, preventable, horrific deaths.

There are several pieces of legislation that could reduce risks for African Americans (and everyone else) as they interact with officers, including:

  • (1) making it illegal for police departments to hire officers who were previously fired or who resigned while under investigation
  • (2) require every police stop to be reported to a state data base for analysis to track patterns
  • (3) require police to use every other available alternative prior to shooting
  • (4) ban departments from receiving military grade equipment from the federal government (tanks, grenade launchers, etc.)
  • (5) make neck restraints illegal
  • (6) make all records of police misconduct public
  • (7) direct additional dollars to county mental health services to ensure necessary treatments are available for all members of the community. Several members of our caucus are interested in pursuing legislation to do what we can here in Kansas to mitigate factors that allow systemic problems to continue, and criminal justice groups are ready to assist.

As always, it is my privilege to serve my constituents in House District 24. I can be reached at jarrod.ousley@house.ks.gov at (785) 296-7366 and on Facebook.