Kansas’ Democratic governor on Tuesday vetoed a sweeping Republican coronavirus measure that would have limited her power to direct the state’s pandemic response but then ceded to local officials the authority to keep restrictions on businesses.
It is not entirely clear how the change will affect Crawford County. The Crawford County Board of Health sent Gov. Laura Kelly a letter last week, when the state was still in “Phase 1.5” of Kelly’s “Ad Astra” reopening plan, saying the county had done its part to slow the spread of the virus and asking Kelly to “consider allowing Crawford County to follow the Governor’s original plan, move us to Phase 2 and allow us to continue forward.”
The same day Crawford County officials sent their letter, however, Kelly announced a new executive order moving the state into a “modified Phase 2” of the plan. Key changes in the modified version of Phase 2 of the plan included that limits on “mass gatherings” were reduced from no more than 30 people to no more than 15, and that bars and nightclubs would have to remain closed.
Following Kelly’s Tuesday press conference, however, the entire Ad Astra reopening plan has shifted from a state-mandated plan to a set of guidelines for counties as of Wednesday. It is unclear whether Crawford County will issue its own order to remain in modified Phase 2, revert to the original Phase 2, which would allow for larger gatherings and reopening of bars and nightclubs that don’t serve food, or take some other course of action.
“The [Crawford] County Commission will meet on Friday,” Pittsburg Mayor Dawn McNay said at Tuesday’s Pittsburg City Commission meeting. “I don’t think that they anticipate doing anything stricter. They will recommend potentially just for people to continue to follow the phases that the governor had put in place.”
In Wyandotte and Johnson counties — two of the hardest hit by the coronavirus statewide — county officials reportedly plan to continue with modified Phase 2 of the Ad Astra plan. Crawford County Health Officer Rebecca Adamson could not be reached for comment by press time Wednesday.
Gov. Kelly not only killed a bill approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature last week but also issued a new state-of- emergency declaration to replace one set to expire Tuesday night. Many Republicans question whether she has the legal authority to do that — and retain the governor’s broad emergency powers — so her action is likely to keep an intense partisan dispute burning and risk a potential court challenge.
Kelly also is heightening the potential conflict with GOP leaders by calling the Legislature back into special session on June 3 to extend the new state of emergency past June 10. However, Republicans have a long list of proposals, including shielding businesses and health care providers from possible coronavirus-related lawsuits.
Lawmakers ended their 2020 session in a single, frenzied 24-hour stretch after reconvening last Thursday from a coronavirus-mandated spring break that started March 20. Kelly called the process of pushing through the coronavirus bill “messy, confusing and complicated.”
“The bill is purported to address the pandemic but instead would make a mess of the state’s ability to respond in times of crisis,” Kelly said during a news conference.
Kelly joined fellow Democratic governors in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in facing a strong backlash from Republicans over their handling of the pandemic. The others govern in swing states important to President Donald Trump’s reelection, but he won Kansas handily in 2016 and is expected to carry it again this year.
Because lawmakers are out of session, they can’t challenge Kelly’s veto, though the special session gives them a chance to try again to curb her power.
The bill Kelly vetoed would have required her to get the permission of legislative leaders to extend the state of emergency through June or continue closing businesses for more than 15 days.
The measure also would have given legislative leaders the final say over how the state spends $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds. They called it necessary oversight; Kelly said it would delay the money’s distribution.
The bill also would have shielded businesses and medical providers from lawsuits, a priority of Republicans nationally.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and a vocal Kelly critic, declared victory because Kelly also is converting her mandate for a phased reopening of the state’s economy into merely a set of recommendations for the state’s 105 counties. Kelly had planned to keep some restrictions until at least June 23, and county health officers will now decide what happens.
“Essentially, what we were wanting to do was to open up business,” said Wagle, also a U.S. Senate candidate. “She spent a lot of time condemning our work, but we’ve won.”
Republicans believe Kelly has moved too slowly to reopen the state’s economy and has too aggressively imposed restrictions. She imposed a statewide stay-at-home order from March 30 until May 4 before announcing a phased economic reopening.
Democrats objected to curbing Kelly’s power and said Republicans also were protecting substandard nursing homes and manufacturers of defective personal protective equipment from liability.
Kansas has seen its reported coronavirus cases increase by 76% since the statewide-stay-at-home order expired three weeks ago, to more than 9,200 as of Monday, the state health department said. Kansas reported 188 COVID-19-related deaths, while Johns Hopkins University put the number at 208.
Morning Sun Staff Writer Jonathan Riley contributed to this report.