Kansas Legislature begins four days of committee meetings to prepare for May 21 end of annual session; Kansas Chamber wants businesses shielded from unwarranted COVID-19 lawsuits; state offers $9 million in grants or community economic development, meal programs

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TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature launched Tuesday into committee meetings on tax, banking, liability and budget reforms sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic's shattering of the economy, unprecedented job losses and influx of billions of dollars in emergency aid.


House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, authorized GOP-led committees to craft a foundation for the Legislature’s scheduled one-day closeout of the annual session May 21. Lawmakers abruptly adjourned in mid-March as the coronavirus began sweeping the United States.


"This legislative session is by no means finished," Ryckman said. "There is no question that the Legislature will respond to the needs of the people."


Wagle, a candidate for U.S. Senate, failed in a bid to convince other legislative leaders to return May 19. She’s a sharp critic of Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive orders, especially a statewide stay-home edict that closed down business and contributed to higher unemployment.


The Legislature should restrict the governor’s emergency power, Wagle said.


Kelly said her preference was for the Legislature to quickly conclude their work next Thursday by focusing on essentials. She said lawmakers’ most important task was preserving emergency authority required by the state to continue accepting federal assistance.


The Legislature can postpone other matters until convening in January when the public can participate in meaningful deliberations on government reform inspired by the pandemic, Kelly said.


"Everything else they’re talking about really requires more time," the governor said. "There is no room for the public to have input on any of these issues."


In Kansas, state health officials said Monday testing revealed 7,116 cases of COVID-19 and 158 fatalities linked to the virus. Meatpacking counties of Ford, Finney, Seward and Lyon counties have a total of 3,000 confirmed cases, and the counties of Sedgwick, Leavenworth, Johnson and Wyandotte also have reported more than 3,000 cases.


Two-thirds at risk


There is apprehension about calling the 125 representatives and 40 senators back to Topeka, because two-thirds of the members are considered at higher risk for infection because of their age.


The GOP’s agenda includes liability protection from lawsuits filed by employees who contract the coronavirus and the formulation of opportunities for struggling businesses to get low-interest capital, said Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia.


Longbine also said legislators could remove costly penalties and interest on unpaid taxes.


Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Olathe, said the $1.25 billion in federal COVID-19 disaster aid appropriated to Kansas government shouldn’t be expended by the Democratic governor without input from the legislative branch.


"The most important duty delegated to our legislative body is to be the fiscal steward of taxpayer funds," he said. "For the Legislature not to have some oversight of $1.25 billion in federal funding would be unprecedented."


Two issues at forefront of the 2020 session of the Legislature remain unresolved. House and Senate leadership blocked key votes on Medicaid expansion sought by the governor, but failed to secure enough votes in the House to place a constitutional amendment on statewide ballots in hopes of limiting access to abortion. The one-day time frame of the legislative session is unlikely to allow unraveling of that logjam.


"Everyone has a pet project they want to get accomplished," said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita. "By returning for one day, the Legislature can efficiently take care of business and avoid the D.C.-style gamesmanship."


Lansing employee dies


The Kansas Department of Corrections said Tuesday a staff member at the Lansing Correctional Facility had died from COVID-19 after being infected at the prison.


The supervisor had worked for the corrections department for more than 30 years. He is the first prison staff member to die from the coronavirus in Kansas.


So far, 88 staff members have been infected in the Lansing outbreak, along with 728 inmates. Three of the inmates have died.


"Our staff put themselves on the front lines every day, but especially during this pandemic," said KDOC secretary Jeff Zmuda. "We extend our deepest sympathy to his family and to those who worked alongside him for so many years. This is an extremely sad day and one that we hoped would never come."


Chamber plea


The Kansas Chamber, which represents business interests in Topeka and Washington, D.C., on Monday urged the state’s federal delegation to vote for legislation to protect businesses from "abuses of the legal system that would punish businesses who are working tirelessly to combat the COVID-19 pandemic."


Alan Cobb, president of the business organization, said companies adhering to government safety guidelines and regulations when reopening shouldn’t be subjected to frivolous lawsuits filed by employees, vendors or customers.


"Providing businesses with targeted and limited liability protections is not the same thing as shielding companies from liability for bad acts," he said.


Cobb said the organization would lobby for similar protections in state law when the Legislature returned next week.


Derek Schmidt, the Kansas attorney general, urged Tuesday the U.S. Senate’s judiciary committee to enact federal liability protections for businesses, manufacturers of personal protective equipment, first responders, health workers, health care facilities and members of law enforcement.


"Regardless of when governments decide to lift stay-at-home orders and other COVID-19 restrictions, the reality is our economy will only truly recover if customers and employees have the confidence to return to the marketplace," Schmidt said.


Meals, eco devo


More than $9 million in federal funding from the CARES Act will be made available to the state’s Community Development Block Grant program to support community programs for low and moderate-income people during the COVID-19 crisis.


The Kansas Department of Commerce will administer the grants helping local businesses retain jobs for low-to-moderate income people. Grant funds could be used for expenses such as wages, utilities and rent or to purchase up to 60 days of inventory needed to reopen a business.


The agency also will provide grants to organizations such as Meals on Wheels, local food banks or to support organizations providing meals for children affected by the loss of school meal programs.


Commerce secretary David Toland said the grants would be distributed at the local level. He said kansascommerce.gov/cdbg-cv would begin accepting CDBG grants Tuesday on a first-come, first-served basis.


"We can help alleviate some of the stress caused by the COVID-19 crisis and allow Kansas to return to business as usual as quickly as possible," he said.


An accounting


U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, R-Kan., said approximately $9 billion in federal funding had been made available to Kansans in response to COVID-19.


"The federal government is providing much-needed relief to Kansas with broad flexibility to use these funds to cover COVID-19-related costs while not intended to fill budget holes for items unrelated to this pandemic," he said.


He said $5.16 billion was approved by May 8 in the first and second rounds of the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered forgivable loans to businesses if a portion was used to keep employees on the payroll. Kansas companies were approved for 47,000 loans, which could translate into an estimated saving of 427,000 jobs.


The federal government funneled $1.25 billion to the state for emergency activities under the CARES Act. Individual Kansans had been recipients of $1.98 billion in economic impact payments as of May 8.


In addition, Kansas hospitals have shared $325 million in federal aid, Medicaid received a $220 million infusion of cash, $15 million went to community health centers and $49 million to public universities.