‘Governor’s way or the highway’: Kansas GOP leaders feel shut out on COVID-19 response

Titus Wu
Topeka Capital-Journal
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, left, has complained of not being included in implementing the governor's testing strategy.

In a state like Kansas, with a Democratic governor and a Republican-majority Legislature, tension is bound to exist. Even in a pandemic, the two branches have tussled over matters from mask mandates to extending the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration.

But in recent weeks and months, GOP lawmakers have been grumbling about how debate over the state’s COVID-19 response has turned into what they perceive as a lack of cooperation from the governor.

“We call it the governor's way or the highway,” Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said in an interview.

Those sentiments boiled to the surface recently during a State Finance Council meeting in which Denning expressed frustration with how the state’s virus testing plan was playing out under Gov. Laura Kelly’s leadership.

The senator had emphasized business and community-wide testing in discussions over approving and allocating CARES Act money for testing. But since that allocation, he said, the focus has been on potential hotspots instead.

Denning tried during the meeting to direct $15 million of potential testing money toward business and community testing but was vetoed by Kelly, who said she didn’t know about the ramifications of such a move and that it would need more discussion.

The senator shot back: “I spent I can’t tell you how many hours on testing ... and to be completely left out of building the program, I feel the same way with you.”

Kelly later said at a news conference that the decision to veer away from Denning’s desires was based on science.

“The fact of the matter is, we needed to have a public health expert coming in and tell us how we can best spend those dollars to get the most impact in our state,” she said, referring to Marci Nielsen, who is advising the governor on the unified testing strategy.

But Denning said he wished the governor still would have included legislative leaders in implementation. He said Republicans even did her a “favor” by approving reallocation of $25 million in CARES Act money toward her state agencies earlier in the meeting.

“With testing, she took control of the whole entire testing program. This is hers,” Denning said. “She took no input from ... any legislator, to my knowledge.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, who is also part of the State Finance Council, said the governor has been considerate of legislators’ input. He dismissed Denning’s complaints.

“Quite frankly, I think they are a bunch of crybabies because most of these guys have not served under a Democratic governor,” Hensley said. “There is a woman, Democratic governor, in the governor's office, and they just have no idea how to handle it.”

It isn’t just the testing strategy. The same feelings were there, though less intense, with the state’s public service announcement campaign that would encourage Kansans to wear masks and socially distance. The council approved $1.5 million in funding for that purpose in the same meeting.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said both sides in late October had agreed in a private meeting that a PSA strategy was important. But when lawmakers reached out to the governor’s office on starting that up, they felt shut out.

“We had multiple calls and follow-ups, ’What's the process?’ and we're just told there's a point person being appointed and ’we’ll let you know when the plan is developed,’ ” Ryckman said. “Well, we like to be a part of that process.”

Legislative leaders were left in the dark after the initial reach out on how committed Kelly was to a PSA strategy, he said, but with the immediate COVID-19 situation, they decided not to wait and began working on a strategy themselves. They even had celebrities lined up to help, which the speaker mentioned in State Finance Council.

It was only until that SFC meeting that the governor and legislative leaders were on the same page.

“Mandates aren't working. We have to try a different approach, and so that's why we thought that was so important,” he said. “I think a lot of times, the governor, when she asks for help, she perceives that as weakness. I don't agree with that.”

Hensley defended the governor, saying Kelly’s communication with the other side has been superb compared to her predecessors.

“In my time in the Legislature, I've served with five Republican governors and five Democratic governors,” said Hensley, the state’s longest-serving lawmaker. “When (Republican) Sam Brownback was governor, he didn't communicate with me at all. I think Gov. Kelly has gone out out of her way to communicate with Republican leadership.”

Complaints over communication with the governor happened well before this month, too.

Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, clashed at a September committee meeting with Will Lawrence, the governor’s chief of staff, over blocking a request for a list of firms that supplied the state with personal protective equipment. The request was made after some PPE purchases made by the state were deficient.

“Legislators make policy. And when we're making policy, we have to have information and data to know how to make good, informative decisions,” Pyle said in an interview.

Lawrence had said the request was blocked partly because giving out too much information publicly could hinder Kansas’ efforts to procure PPE in the future.

But Pyle still doesn’t buy the argument, saying there are ways around it, such as viewing the information in executive session.

As of November, while he received some data from the governor’s office, it didn’t address what he asked for, Pyle said, and he will be requesting more information again.

“I don't know, maybe we do need something that says that when the Legislature puts out a request, that agencies have to respond, and it's not a bad thought,” Pyle said.

But Lawrence in September said legislators have played a role in antagonizing the relationship between the two sides, pointing to when Republicans put the governor’s emergency declaration renewal in jeopardy over including a clause on not shutting down businesses.

“When it becomes a political football or a piece of leverage to try to extract something with the state response, that’s a problem,” he had said.

Hensley echoed that point, noting the GOP had placed limits on the governor’s emergency powers.

“Republicans can’t help themselves. When they have a Democratic governor, they've got to interfere with the job that she was elected to do,” he said.

A longer, simmering tension that still continues to this day is how long the testing strategy has taken and its continued implementation.

Back in early October, Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, made known she was not happy with the timeline.

“I am just very frustrated and very disappointed that we have not at least let (Wichita State) and the lab start in our two most urban areas. And they know what they’re doing. And they’re signing the documents that say ‘We do it wrong, we’ll pay it back,’ ” McGinn had said. “We have to keep our businesses open now.”

KDHE Secretary Lee Norman had defended that timeline, saying legal formalities had to be sorted out to ensure a correct and smooth process.

McGinn told The Topeka Capital-Journal she understood all that but wished legislators were kept more in the loop about how the strategy was rolling out. While she didn’t agree with her other colleagues about being “left in the dark,” she said legislators definitely weren’t involved.

“A lot of times we just sit and wait until we either get an email or a news release,” she said. “I think there could be some better transparency and better communication about what the governor's office is doing, and better coordination.”

Ultimately, Kelly denied doing anything that wasn’t transparent to the legislators. Republicans play a role in where COVID-19 funding goes through the State Finance Council and the SPARK Committee.

“We have had these conversations, not like we’re doing this stuff behind closed doors,” she said at a news conference. “These are conversations that have been had at the SPARK Task Force, for instance, where Sen. Denning sits. These aren’t things we are doing in the dark. These are things we are discussing and putting in place with full transparency.”

Gov. Laura Kelly gives an update on COVID-19 in the state during a news conference Wednesday at the Statehouse.