Legislative leaders decide to bring lawmakers back on May 21 for one-day wrap-up; Senate President Susan Wagle, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning hoped for more time to address oversight of Gov. Laura Kelly’s emergency powers
This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to your local newspaper.
TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers will return in two weeks for a truncated, one-day session to wrap up business and limit their exposure to COVID-19.
The decision Wednesday by a panel of legislative leaders to return May 21 guarantees a collision course of competing interests between bills relating to the pandemic and other items that were cast aside when lawmakers hastily vacated the Statehouse in mid-March.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, a Republican from Olathe, said it appears there will be no vote on a proposed constitutional amendment on abortion. Medicaid expansion will surely be discussed, he said, but "we really need to work on what’s a want versus a need."
"There's really nothing off the table, but we do want to focus on things that are in response to COVID-19," Ryckman said.
In a world free from an easily transmitted and deadly disease, the Legislature would have returned in late April from a three-week break to tackle unfinished business and address any veto by the governor before the traditional "sine die" closing on May 21. Lawmakers passed a budget, transportation deal and emergency declaration before adjourning in March as a contingency in case they couldn’t return.
The Legislative Coordinating Council, a panel of five Republican and two Democratic leaders, opted for the one-day return and rejected a competing plan supported by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, to come back on May 19.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said he was concerned about bringing everybody back for multiple days of lengthy debates. About two-thirds of state lawmakers are at an age that makes them vulnerable to serious illness, he said. The 125 members of the House and 40 members of the Senate also would have staff present.
"There are a lot of things I would like to see happen — Medicaid expansion for one — but I don't think any of it is worth causing some of our members to be hospitalized or, even worse, if one of our members were to die because we came back," Sawyer said.
Denning raised concerns with surrendering total discretion to Gov. Laura Kelly to spend $1.25 billion in emergency federal funding however she sees fit. He also wondered how political leaders could tell the public to get back to work if they were too scared to return for more than a day.
"We're really reckless trying to shorten our workload here," Denning said. "I don't understand Rep. Sawyer's logic. If the Legislature is that fragile, then we have a serious problem."
Wagle outlined an ambitious agenda that includes curtailing the governor’s emergency powers and shielding businesses from liability over coronavirus infections. She said there already are several lawsuits in the pipeline seeking damages.
Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, said conference committees could meet remotely and prepare legislation before bringing everybody together for a vote. By limiting the wrap-up session to one day, he said, they could avoid the hassle of dealing with superfluous legislation.
Finch also cautioned against wading into the legislation that deals with emergency powers in a rushed, narrow window, which could lead to legal challenges down the road.
"We all have a laundry list of things we would like to see, that are important to us or important to constituents, but the one thing we are constitutionally obligated to do is pass the budget, and that we have done," Finch said.