Republican-controlled State Finance Council extends state disaster declaration long enough so the Legislature can overhaul Gov. Laura Kelly’s emergency powers; Two employees and three inmates at Lansing prison have died of COVID-19; 236,000 Kansans filed initial unemployment claims in Kansas from March 15-May 9

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TOPEKA — Republican legislators on the State Finance Council rejected Wednesday the 30-day extension of the state emergency disaster declaration sought by Gov. Laura Kelly while approving a 12-day addition to provide the House and Senate a window of opportunity to rewrite state law guiding the governor’s conduct during the crisis.


The outcome reflected partisan anxiety and admiration of Kelly’s decisions since March to balance economic and health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.


"Clearly, right now, what we’re dealing with governor is you have been very overreaching on some of your emergency orders," said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and candidate for U.S. Senate. "We won’t allow one dictator to determine everything. We will have a check and a balance of power."


The bottom line of the one-hour State Finance Council debate was that the statewide emergency order tied to COVID-19 will remain until May 26. That allows the Legislature to return to Topeka on May 21 and, if the GOP leadership prevails, pass a law clipping the governor’s wings. The reform bill would likely include legislative oversight on spending of federal disaster aid and a mechanism for legislators to override the governor’s executive orders.


Kelly could veto the Legislature’s bill, but Kansas would be left with no form of disaster declaration beyond May 26. A long list of executive orders would be voided, including popular bans on housing evictions and an order expanding use of telemedicine. It isn’t clear whether Kansas would continue to receive the full scope of federal financial assistance tied to the virus.


Kelly, who served in the state Senate before elected governor in 2018, said she was concerned a slapped together bill changing the executive branch’s options during the pandemic could end up hurting Kansans.


"I can’t believe that any of you are not aware of the implications if we don’t have an emergency declaration," Kelly said. "I know that some of you have concerns that some of the things we’ve done here from the governor’s office have been extreme."


Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said the proposed bill would be developed in collaboration with Attorney General Derek Schmidt. Denning’s peer on the Democratic side, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said passing a reform bill in the one day reserved for the Legislature to conclude the annual session would be dangerous. The changes can await the 2021 legislative session in January, Hensley said.


"I feel like we’re rushing," said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita. "It sounds like you’re going to rewrite the statute in one day."


The governor asked the six Republican and two Democratic legislators on the State Finance Council to extend the current disaster declaration until mid-June. All six GOP members voted against the governor’s recommendation, while the two Democrats backed Kelly.


Kelly put in place May 5 a phased resumption of business and personal activities intended to moderate spread of COVID-19. Business owners blocked from reopening have loudly voiced opposition to pace of her strategy.


The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported Wednesday testing revealed 7,468 positives statewide and 164 Kansas residents with COVID-19 had died.


Second officer death


A second corrections officer working at the state’s prison at Lansing died of medical complications linked to COVID-19.


Jeff Zmuda, secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections, said the 20-year veteran of the agency, who was a man in his 50s and most recently worked as a corrections supervisor, died Tuesday. The first staff fatality at Lansing Correctional Facility associated with the virus occurred on Monday.


The northeast Kansas prison has been at the epicenter of the state prison system’s cluster of coronavirus cases. At the prison in Lansing, 88 employees and 728 inmates have tested positive for the virus. Three of Lansing’s prisoners have died of COVID-19.


"This virus does not discriminate and has touched so many of us," Zmuda said. "We are committed to doing everything we can to ensure the health and safety of both our employees and those in our custody."


Zmuda said four prison inmates and two corrections employees with COVID-19 remained hospitalized. All inmates at Lansing have been tested, but the secretary said the agency would start Thursday with a plan to test all employees at the Lansing and Wichita prison facilities.


Zmuda said the first staff member to die was a man over the age of 60 with more than three decades of service in KDOC.


The corrections department has reported infections of staff or inmates at prisons in El Dorado, Ellsworth, Norton, Topeka and the Wichita work release facility and the juvenile detention facility in Topeka.


Emergency status


Before the State Finance Council meeting, Kelly said she doubted legislators on the panel would reject a 30-day extension of the disaster declaration and risk possible loss of emergency federal funding.


Kelly’s current plan for reopening the economy still prohibits operation of hair salons, theaters, bars, nontribal casinos, tattoo parlors, barber shops as well as convening of fairs, festivals, parades, carnivals and sporting events. From onset of the business shut down March 15 through last Saturday, state officials said, 236,400 Kansas filed initial claims for unemployment benefits.


From onset of the business shut down March 15 through last Saturday, state officials said, 236,400 Kansas filed initial claims for unemployment benefits.


House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said his district had numerous retail businesses, including hair dressers, barbers and other self-employed people, that were suffering from the governor’s restrictions on reopening.


"I’m not sure how government can shut somebody down and literally put them into bankruptcy and expect them not to go back to work. And, when they finally decide, ’I can’t do this any more,’ then they’re served with an arrest warrant. It’s beyond me how we can do that to people," Hawkins said.


Kelly said the council’s decision could jeopardize COVID-19 aid funneled through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


"I can’t imagine that the State Finance Council would want to do that to Kansans or themselves," Kelly said.


U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, a Republican serving the 4th District anchored by Wichita, ssid FEMA assured him disaster assistance would keep flowing throughout the pandemic even if the State Finance Council nixed the state emergency declaration. The congressman said aid was contingent on a presidential disaster declaration, not the Kansas equivalent signed by Kelly.


"I have confirmed with FEMA that this assistance will not end even if the Kansas state of emergency declaration expires," Estes said. "For months, we've seen Kansans' lives devastated by the direct and indirect effects of COVID-19. As Kansas begins to reopen and we start our economy again, it's critical that we continue to have access to FEMA's disaster assistance."


New jobless benefit


The Kansas Department of Labor began accepting applications Tuesday for a new category of unemployment assistance targeting independent contractors, gig workers and the self-employed.


This program authorized by the federal government provides a $600 weekly benefit to such workers as Uber and Lyft drivers as well as staff of religious organizations whose employment was affected by COVID-19.


Labor secretary Delia Garcia said the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance piece of the federal CARES Act offers special coverage from Jan. 27 through Dec. 26. The benefit checks in Kansas are expected to begin flowing by May 25.


"KDOL has reached another milestone in our efforts to create and implement the programs in the CARES Act, providing essential benefits to hard-working Kansans," Garcia said.


The Department of Labor has encountered challenges in modifying its computer system to meet altered benefits and to deal with high volume of jobless claims.


"This will not be over this month," the labor secretary said. "We will need flexibility to continue working with the federal government for the rest of the year. Congress may pass further legislation. We could face significant challenges or roadblocks to receiving further funding if the Kansas Legislature is not in session."