Legislature delays return until after April 27; KDHE expands testing to guide changes in statewide business, gathering limits; U.S. senators from Kansas back new federal aid for testing, hospitals, SBA loans; Kansas implements 10-week extension of jobless benefits; death toll rises to 110
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TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature’s leadership postponed resumption of the session Wednesday to protect two-thirds of lawmakers considered at risk of being infected with COVID-19, a decision likely to compel Gov. Laura Kelly to issue a new statewide emergency declaration and potentially jeopardize millions of dollars in federal aid.
Lawmakers were scheduled to reconvene April 27, but concern about undermining health of House and Senate members led the bipartisan Legislative Coordinating Council to abandon that plan. The LCC voted unanimously to delay a decision on resumption of work at the Capitol to no later than May 6. The governor’s overarching emergency declaration for Kansas will expire May 1.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Senate President Susan Wagle, two Republicans on the LCC, said the governor could retain all her emergency authority by issuing a new disaster declaration. The process doesn’t allow her to simply extend the existing order.
"I can’t see, our attorneys can’t see, where they can extend the current declaration," Ryckman said.
The Kansas Constitution requires legislators meet publicly in Topeka and take final action votes while physically present in House or Senate chambers. Thirty of 40 senators and 78 of 125 representatives are considered at risk of contracting COVID-19 because they are at least 60 years old.
Wagle, who is a candidate for U.S. Senate, said the governor created procedural challenges for continuation of the state’s emergency response by filing a lawsuit in defense of an executive order restricting church crowds to no more than 10. The LCC voted to reverse that order, but the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the LCC didn’t have power to block Kelly’s mass-gathering directive on church attendance. Two Baptist churches subsequently filed suit in federal court.
"We’re in a situation where the governor wants to work with us as long as we approve all of her orders, but when we have a disagreement all the sudden she doesn’t want to work with us and she sued us," Wagle said.
Kelly said there was a "little bit of irony" that some legislative leaders pressuring her to prepare for reopening the Kansas economy also concluded it was unsafe for House and Senate members to be in Topeka.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democratic member of the LCC, said Senate conservatives initiated problems with the governor’s crisis authority. The House accepted the Senate’s flawed approach to undercutting the governor before adjourning in mid-March, he said.
"Now," Hensley said, "instead of admitting to it, they are pointing fingers in any direction but their own."
Will Lawrence, the governor’s chief of staff, said Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, informed legislators that their resolution placing limits on the governor raised separation-of-powers problems.
"The LCC was warned — prior to taking their action — that it lacked the authority to revoke the governor’s executive orders," Lawrence said. "They chose to act anyway."
The governor has asked legislative leaders to do what was necessary to prevent loss of federal funding and premature revocation of a series of state emergency orders. Refusal by lawmakers to act risks liability coverage for first responders and others caring for sick Kansans.
"In no way can we let those orders expire," Kelly said.
On Wednesday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported the number of deaths increased to 110 and positive tests reached 2,211. There are nearly 450 positive tests in Ford, Finney, Seward and Lyon counties, the four counties where KDHE says at least 168 employees at meatpacking plants tested positive. Meanwhile, officials said a female employee at Larned State Hospital tested positive for COVID-19.
Need more testing
KDHE secretary Lee Norman believes Kansas is nearing a coronavirus peak in terms of the toll exacted by the pandemic’s mysterious assailant.
Analysis of infection and fatality rates led KDHE to circle late April on the calendar as the likely pinch point in Kansas. This Rubik’s cube of public health forecasting holds significance for Kansans eager for relief. If testing in Kansas shows social distancing sufficiently restrained spread of COVID-19, shackles of Kelly’s executive orders binding the economy could be removed.
Norman, a physician, said he expects all 105 counties in Kansas will eventually record a positive case for COVID-19. He is keen to get his hands on evidence of a steep 14-day decline in new infections.
"It’s not the absolute number of days and the number of cases. It’s the rapidity of the drop," he said. "If it’s a very slow falling off, we’d be more concerned."
On Tuesday, KDHE loosened rules on testing. No longer will people need to have an elevated temperature and exhibit two symptoms of the virus to get a test. The temperature mandate was dropped as part of KDHE’s strategy to broadly test within the general population while staying up with demands at hospitals, communal residential spaces and hot spots.
"It’s not a goal to test 3 million Kansans," Norman said. "With targeted sampling we estimated 15,500 tests to determine the prevalence of disease throughout the state of Kansas."
Kelly said good news from the survey could lead to lifting of the statewide stay-at-home order, business-closure directive and mass-gathering restriction.
The states needed help from the federal government with acquisition of testing supplies and equipment, the governor said. The state will assume responsibility for the 400-person unit assigned to help track down people who might have been exposed to COVID-19.
"These two items have to be solidly in place before we can actually think about opening the doors," Kelly said.
New federal aid
U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts, both Kansas Republicans, voted for the new bipartisan relief package to clear the Senate. It requires an endorsement from the House and signature of President Donald Trump.
The legislation provides $25 billion for national coronavirus testing, including $21.2 for Kansas, and $75 billion for U.S. hospitals.
"Kansas is in desperate need of additional COVID-19 tests and this relief package will provide much needed assistance to our state," Moran said. "Through widespread testing, Kansans will be able to feel secure in their health so they can return to work and our economy can recover."
The deal didn’t include support for state and local governments suffering revenue losses. Kelly said federal aid could help states such as Kansas, which is projecting a decline of $1.3 billion in tax revenue during the current and upcoming fiscal years.
The federal bill provided $310 billion to replenish the Paycheck Protection Program operated by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Initial PPP loans were snatched up by 1.6 million companies and prompted complaints from small business owners they were squeezed out of the $349 billion pot by large companies.
Moran said 26,000 Kansas businesses have benefited from PPP funding designed to help companies keep their employees on the payroll during the pandemic.
The Kansas Department of Labor completed computer tweaks necessary to implement a temporary 10-week increase the maximum amount of unemployment benefits. The bill mandating a 26-week benefit was passed by legislators and signed by the governor in March.
The labor department’s computer system has been overwhelmed by filing of more than 150,000 new jobless claims as COVID-19 muzzled companies and triggered layoffs and furloughs.
Delia Garcia, secretary of the labor department, said individuals filing for unemployment benefits on or after Jan. 1, 2020, would be eligible for the additional aid.
The agency is expected to complete this week computer modifications necessary to allocate to unemployed Kansans the $600 per week in bonus benefits approved by the federal government.