After a prolonged tussle, the State Finance Council voted unanimously Friday to extend the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration until Oct. 15 after Gov. Laura Kelly assured members she wouldn’t seek again to close businesses.
The three-hour hearing included numerous heated moments, including accusations lobbed back and forth by Kelly, her staff and Republican lawmakers that each side was politicizing the pandemic.
At issue was an effort from Republicans to seek a commitment in the declaration itself that Kelly wouldn’t use her powers to shutter businesses — language that the governor initially resisted.
A meeting of minds pushed by Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, eventually found a breakthrough, with Kelly committing in the declaration that it is her “intention not to use her authority to close businesses.”
Without action, the emergency order would have expired Sept. 15 under House Bill 2016, the compromise approved in June between Kelly and legislators to limit her powers during the pandemic.
Advocates say the declaration is necessary to ensure that federal relief funds continue to flow from Washington, D.C., although Republicans dispute this claim. The order is also required to ensure the state’s emergency management operations continue seamlessly.
District attorneys across the state have also said that the move is needed to continue to suspend requirements for a speedy trial. Not renewing the order would potentially free those who are awaiting trial as the state’s court system slowly recovers from the pandemic.
“We need the order to extend so we can do our job of keeping the citizens of the state safe,” said Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett at a news conference following the hearing.
And urgency was high, Kelly said, given that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment announced 976 new coronavirus cases since Wednesday, as well as 16 new deaths related to COVID-19.
GOP members of the council expressed few objections to the need for a declaration. But leaders argued that the extension needed more certainty for businesses baked in.
“If we all agreed to put that language in this extension, it would calm everything down,” Denning said.
Kelly repeatedly reiterated that she had no desire to close businesses, which she argued would make adding any language unnecessary and legally problematic.
“I try not to do things just to make a political statement and my sense is putting (language) in there just when it is absolutely not necessary … is just to make it political,” she said.
House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, met Kelly’s remarks with a fiery response, pushing back against the notion that Republican leaders were obstructing the process.
“I’m flat tired of that narrative,” Hawkins said.
Both Hawkins and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, accused Kelly of breaking the rules in vetoing a vote on the order earlier in the meeting.
The governor’s conduct, Wagle said, was unbecoming.
“This is not how meetings should be run in the future,” she said.
Denning acknowledged at a news conference that there were procedural questions stemming from the meeting that might need to be addressed in the future.
But he said the meeting was “how the political process works” and rejected the notion that the State Finance Council hearings had become a “spectacle.”
“The process worked today,” Denning said. “We were all on different ends of the spectrum. We were all heading to ’no,’ which would have been very bad for the state with all the domino effects. When you start at ’hell no’ and end up with a unanimous vote, that’s a good day and that’s how the process works and that’s how it worked today.”
Lawmakers will be faced with a similar crossroads next month, when the 30-day extension approved Friday expires. Kelly has already indicated she will likely seek another emergency declaration at that time.