GOP legislators to let COVID-19 emergency order expire at midnight, despite governor's objections
Top Republican legislators said Tuesday they will let the Kansas's COVID-19 emergency declaration expire at the end of the day, defying a request from Gov. Laura Kelly to extend the order for another month.
Conservative lawmakers have been skeptical of the need for the order for some time, arguing the state and its residents are ready to move on from the pandemic as case counts continue to decline. They voted, with some reluctance, to issue another extension last month but said it would be the last one they would authorize.
Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, followed through on that warning Tuesday, canceling a meeting where lawmakers planned to discuss the extension, in effect choosing not to renew the order after it had been in place for 15 months.
Under a law passed earlier this year, a panel of primarily Republican legislators called the Legislative Coordinating Council have control over authorizing any extension.
In a statement, Masterson and his colleagues in Senate Republican leadership said the governor hadn't "provided adequate justification" to support an additional extension.
"The legislature and the LCC have granted the governor every extension request over the last year, but the current circumstances surrounding COVID-19 no longer necessitate a statewide disaster emergency," Masterson said.
Kelly was seeking an extension to July 15 but told reporters last week that she would ideally want the declaration to run until the end of August, with the governor reiterating that sentiment in a letter to GOP leaders Friday.
In recent days, Democratic governors in states like Maine, New Jersey and Virginia have ended or announced plans to terminate their state's COVID-19 emergency orders, joining more than a half-dozen Republican-led states. The federal pandemic emergency order is set to run for at least another month.
Kelly administration decries effect on COVID-19 vaccine distribution
The letter argued the order was particularly important to provide Kansas National Guard support for vaccine distribution, particularly in schools. Vaccination rates have slowed in recent weeks, with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing 57% of eligible residents receiving at least one dose.
The National Guard has provided logistical support, including moving vaccine doses across the state, as well as using personnel to actually administer the shots.
"While COVID-19 could become an ever-present threat to public health if vaccination rates continue to decline, our emergency response will not be permanent," Kelly wrote. "We owe it to Kansans to finish the job and wind down the state of disaster emergency responsibly."
In a statement, House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said the state didn't need the National Guard to aid in its vaccine efforts.
“The remaining goal to make vaccines available to all Kansans who want them is one that our state can achieve without emergency measures and executive orders," Ryckman said. "There are adequate medical personnel to meet the current demand for vaccines and the regular authority available to the Governor under the laws of our state is sufficient to meet these needs."
Will Lawrence, the governor's chief of staff, told reporters that Kelly's administration would "find a way" to pick up the slack on vaccine distribution, including over 20 clinics that the National Guard was set to handle before the end of July.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has said they hope to fill in the gaps with contract nurses and Health Secretary Lee Norman said last week he thought his agency could keep up with demand, with little effect to the public.
But Lawrence said Tuesday the order's end will make the task more difficult than it needed to be.
"There are still people getting sick. There are still people dying," Lawrence said. "And we still have a lot of work to do on this. And (Republican legislators are) just choosing to make it harder for reasons that I can't really fathom, other than it is getting to be campaign season for some of them."
Most other duties handled by the state's emergency operations center have ended or were set to end in the coming days, although the governor's office has maintained it was still needed to field requests for personal protective equipment from local governments.
Kelly revoked a number of pandemic-related executive orders Monday. Those which haven't ended already will run out at the end of Tuesday, including a pause on drivers' license renewals and mandates for COVID-19 testing in adult care homes licensed by the state.
Lawrence warned ending the order could jeopardize Kansas' future share of federal COVID-19 disaster aid, although other states have ended their emergency declarations without losing the funds. Officials with the regional office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
And roughly 63,000 Kansans could lose $14.5 million in food stamp benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, after federal officials expanded the program last year in states with a COVID-19 emergency order in place.