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TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly greeted House and Senate members to a special session of the Legislature on Wednesday by endorsing a revised COVID-19 oversight bill negotiated by the governor’s staff and Republican legislative leaders.


She vetoed a similar bill last week because she objected to provisions undermining her authority to manage the health crisis and economic recovery.


"It was rushed, written without bipartisan discussion and passed unconstitutionally," Kelly said. "I will support this bipartisan bill that was created with input from Republicans, Democrats and stakeholders that I believe will provide the framework our state needs as we continue on the path to recovery."


The Democratic governor said there were parts of the bill that she couldn’t support but committed to "work across the aisle to move our state forward."


Some members of the House and Senate have expressed discontent with the coronavirus oversight bill, which bypassed the normal committee process.


The $400 million


The coronavirus task force appointed by Kelly adopted a plan Tuesday during its first meeting for distribution of $400 million in federal disaster aid to county governments for economic and health costs of the lingering pandemic.


The executive committee of SPARK, otherwise known as Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas, carved a chunk from $1 billion in CARES Act assistance sent to Kansas. The cash can’t be used to fill city or county tax revenue shortfalls but must be applied to expenses incurred during the pandemic and spent by end of the year.


"We need to provide local governments with all the resources we can to mitigate the virus and revitalize our economy," Kelly said. "We want to make these funds available, so communities can address current challenges and jump start our economic recovery."


The task force earmarked $350 million to 103 of the state’s 105 counties. It amounted to $194 per person. Johnson and Sedgwick counties, because both have more than 500,000 residents, received a total of $216 million in federal funding directly from Washington, D.C.


The governor’s task force also made $50 million in "impact" funding available to all Kansas counties with exceptional increases in unemployment or high rates of COVID-19 infection. Seven Kansas counties have at least 500 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, while 17 counties have no reported cases.


The task force directed county officials to share the money with educational and municipal entities.


"This fair, impactful and timely distribution of funds to county governments will strengthen our health, speed the reopening of our economy and help our state remain open for business," said Cheryl Harrison-Lee, executive director of the governor’s COVID-19 recovery office.


She said the remaining $600 million in CARES Act grants would be released in two phases. Public organizations and private companies would be eligible for this funding dedicated to short- and long-term investments in economic revitalization, she said.


In Kansas, COVID-19 has killed nearly 220 people and infected more than 10,000 statewide.


Another try


Kelly’s veto of a bill passed by the Republican-led Legislature to alter boundaries of emergency government powers during the pandemic led negotiators with the House, Senate and governor’s office to come up with an alternative. Details of a deal were outlined Tuesday for House and Senate judiciary committees.


On the cusp of Wednesday’s special session of the Legislature to consider unresolved COVID-19 issues, response to the proposed bill from lawmakers was mixed.


Chief negotiator Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican and vice president of the Kansas Senate, said the lengthy bill dealt with oversight of federal CARES Act funding, modernization of the Kansas Emergency Management Act and offered liability protection to businesses from lawsuits tied to coronavirus.


"You will be very pleased with the product," Longbine said.


"We’re 95% there. I feel like we’re getting pretty close," said Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.


For example, future spending of federal aid could be initiated by the governor but expenditures would have to be examined by the State Finance Council. The governor chairs the council, but decisions would have to be ratified by six of eight legislative members. Republicans hold six seats on the council.


The bill would affirm the governor’s statewide disaster declaration and extend provisions of that document until Sept. 15. Kelly would be allowed to issue emergency orders ceasing commercial activity in response to COVID-19 for a maximum of 15 days prior to Sept. 15 and in consultation with the State Finance Council. After that date, six members of the State Finance Council would have to consent to any business closures.


The governor would be forbidden from adjusting elections by executive order. She couldn’t unilaterally close K-12 schools, but could take that step if backed by a majority of the 10 members on the Kansas State Board of Education. At behest of the state’s attorney general, the bill would regulate contact tracing by local or state officials in an attempt to track spread of the virus.


Sen. Eric Rucker, a Topeka Republican, said the product of negotiations so closely resembled the bill vetoed by Kelly that it suggested the governor abused her power to squash legislation.


"It does not match the imprudent, the inflammatory, the intemperate remarks of the governor as it relates to our work product," he said. "There just isn’t that much different."


The governor belittled the all-night marathon session of the Legislature in May that produced the vetoed bill. Kelly, who served 15 years as a state senator from Topeka, said that 24-hour gathering of the Legislature was "the most embarrassing, irresponsible display of governing that we have witnessed throughout this ordeal."


Other reactions


Skeptics of the 82-page bill developed through negotiations pointed to procedural and constitutional flaws in handling the legislation. Democrats and Republicans denounced the bill as work of a tiny number of lawmakers operating behind closed doors without public scrutiny.


"Whose idea was it? Who approved what’s in it?" said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita. "Cay you give us any idea about where this monstrosity came from?"


Others complained liability protections were watered down and questionable elements inserted to undercut a governor’s ability to lock down schools and businesses, to forbid changes to elections and to regulate contact tracing of potentially infected people during a pandemic.


The rewrite undermined an attempt to extend liability protection to nursing homes caring for people testing positive for COVID-19, said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg. She said the new bill required state inspection of all Kansas nursing homes within 90 days, rather than the previous bill’s 30-day deadline.


"This is appalling. This is not acceptable," she said.


Baumgardner said 70% of Johnson County’s coronavirus cases were in nursing homes and 17% of the state’s fatalities in the pandemic were linked to nursing homes.


Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, said the piece forcing a governor to obtain state Board of Education consent to close schools could slow the response and threaten health and safety of students.


"I have a little concern that on one hand we want to convey the ability to be nimble but, by the way, not too nimble," Jennings said. "I’d prefer to err on the side of protecting decisions."


There were GOP complaints the special session was a waste of taxpayers’ dollars and legislators’ time because Kelly was likely to veto the bill. Hostility also was directed at the governor for vetoes of three other bills containing reform highly prized by certain legislators.


"We’re wasting, you know, taxpayer dollars yet again," said Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston. "Should I just prepare additional time in June and July to come back and do this again if she vetoes it?"