State lawmakers gathered Thursday to discuss limiting the power of the executive branch during declared emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Special Committee on the Kansas Emergency Management Act went through at least 37 items of legislation that would change Kansas’ emergency management laws, and it recommended many of them on Thursday for consideration in the next legislative session.
"I don’t believe there was any intent coming from this committee to broaden the authority of the governor," said Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston. "I believe it was the intent of this committee ... to further regulate said authority, not to enhance it."
Items the committee looked at included those targeted at Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Some were technical, such as requiring that the governor specify, when issuing an emergency order, the statute allowing such action. Others had more impact, such as how the Legislature would have oversight over the governor’s powers if not in session.
When it comes to immediate disasters within 21 days, said Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, there would be little oversight, but "once it becomes a long-term issue like this (pandemic), there needs to be more legislative oversight," he said.
How that would play out became a matter of debate. Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, wanted the State Finance Council — which currently consists of mostly Republican lawmakers — involved early, saying it was a good check on the governor.
Owens wasn’t satisfied with only the State Finance Council having oversight of the governor.
"I believe that if we have an emergency that lasts longer than 51 days, that a special session of the Legislature shall be called by the governor for that extension," he said.
Other ideas were brought up, such as a larger State Finance Council that would bring in more voices. Concerns were brought up as well about how practical bringing everybody back into the Capitol would be outside of a regular session during certain disasters.
The committee considered limitations on the executive orders themselves.
Sen. Eric Rucker, R-Topeka, recommended prohibiting any executive orders under an emergency declaration from suspending any part of the criminal code.
"We are not erasing any of the enforcement of any criminal law simply or merely because an executive order has been issued," he said.
A big theme, along the lines of limiting executive orders, was giving as much local control as possible.
Some wanted businesses to be kept open per local authority. Similarly, members talked about the possibility that in the same way counties currently can opt out of certain statewide orders, cities could be able to veer away from countywide orders.
That brought out some disagreement, though. Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said enacting such a rule could cause some chaos, given much of the statewide response to emergencies are handled between the state and counties.
"I think that there’s a lot of reasons ... (that) cities, who are not part of this state-local connection that counties are, to just be operating on their own, could create problems," she said.
But Rep. Bradley Ralph, R-Dodge City, countered that the more local the decision-making, the better it is tailored to the residents.
"We have so many areas and counties where we have a single city within the county that actually has most of the population of that county," Ralph said. "So the representation of individuals closest to them actually lies within the city commission even more so than a county commission."
The committee also considered suggestions from state leaders who testified in previous days.
Ed Klumpp, of the Kansas Sheriffs Association and the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police, had asked for legislation that would reenact criminal violations for violating emergency orders, but specifically for more immediate disasters like wildfires or weather crises.
Some committee members understood the need for enforcement in those immediate disasters but agreed to let those in session create those specific rules and definitions.
Other issues of note that were recommended included establishing a set of criteria businesses would meet to guarantee they can stay open and transparency legislation tied to accessing COVID-19 or other emergency-related data and information.
Ultimately, lawmakers in the committee stressed these were just recommendations for those in the House Judiciary Committee to look at during regular session, which starts next year.