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September 20th, 2020

kansas sealEARL WATT • Leader & Times


The Kansas Legislature worked until the wee hours of the morning after a marathon Thursday session and then returned early Friday morning to finish what will be the historic session that was interrupted and transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The controversial bill to limit Kansas Governor Laura Kelly’s authority during the emergency passed the Senate 27-11 and the House 76-34.

The bill would allow Kelly’s emergency powers to remain through May 31. After that, the state’s Finance Council would be able to decide whether or not to extend Kelly’s power.

The bill would also allow counties to adopt less restrictive rules.

For Rep. Shannon Francis (R-Liberal), he thought the bill continued to support the governor’s role as chief executive while also allowing the Legislature to have proper oversight.

“I thought the bill we passed struck a good balance between legislative oversight and local control, and protecting the rights of business people,” Francis said. “It allows the governor to declare an emergency, and it allows legislative members of the state finance council to extend it as necessary. It allows local county commissions and cities to establish less rigorous guidelines based upon recommendations of county health officials. I think we took a big step in the right direction.”

As of press time, Kelly had yet to sign the bill, and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley predicted Kelly would veto the bill, leaving the question of how long a governor can continue to operate with emergency powers undecided.

“It extends the current declaration to May 31, and then at that time, the Finance Council will consider renewing it,” Francis said. “Then we can have the discussion between the legislative and executive branch.”

The Finance Council is made up of eight members of the Legislature, including the Speaker of the House, the House Majority Leader, the House Minority Leader, the House Appropriations Committee chair, the President of the Senate, the Senate Majority Leader, the Senate Minority Leader, the Senate Ways and Means Committee chair and the governor.

By statute, six of the eight members would have to agree to extend emergency authority.

Another part of the legislation was to involve the Legislature in the distribution of the $1.2 billion in federal finds distributed throughout he CARES Act.

“Part of this legislation was to allow the Legislative Budget Committee to make recommendations on spending federal funds with the CARES Act,” Francis said. “We do need to see how the guidelines come through from the federal government. It is so speculative at this time. You can’t make plans.”

The Legislature has been trying to adjust since the pandemic arrived, and the structure of government was not created to deal with the unusual crisis.

“Our statutes weren’t designed for human pandemics,” Francis said. “They are designed around an emergency declaration, and one extension by the Finance Council. We will have to deal with the fact they aren’t designed around what happens if she doesn’t sign it.”

Could the governor simply continue to declare 30-day emergencies until the Legislature reconvenes in 2021? According to Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the answer is no.

He also questioned whether or not her orders can be handled as criminal rather than civil.

“It will have to be decided in the courts,” Francis said. “The Attorney General issued an opinion. It is his feeling it is not her power to declare emergency declarations ongoing. It is the governor’s stance that it is her responsibility to declare an emergency as necessary to protect health and safety of Kansans.”

That’s why Francis believes the bill passed by the Legislature can provide clarity and a path forward.

“That’s why we thought this was a good bill,” he said. “It  restores balance. The Governor is the chief executive of the state, and the Legislature has oversight. We feel it is a good balance.”

Legislation also passed that would:

  • Allow counties to waive penalties and past due interest on seconds half of property taxes.
  • Establish low interest funds for banks and credit unions to loan to small business and agriculture.
  • Remove the property tax lid in 2021 but requires notification to taxpayers when local government increases taxes, when they increase budget.

“It was a busy session,” Francis said. “There were a lot of pieces, and a lot of good legislation was passed.”

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