Republicans in the Kansas Legislature are the dog that chased the car and uh-oh, now that they’ve caught it have nothing to do but yip.
That terrible Gov. Laura Kelly, they kept saying, was such a wannabe dictator with her pandemic shutdown orders that were slowly being phased out anyway.
To show her who’s boss during their unconstitutional all-night session last week, Republican lawmakers only briefly extended her emergency declaration order. And did so in legislation that would have done all sorts of long-term harm, just for starters making it all but impossible to sue even scammers for coronavirus-related damages.
The extension of the emergency declaration was supposed to force the governor to sign the bill. Because she wasn’t going to risk losing the federal aid that the declaration makes possible, now was she?
Kelly had two bad choices: She could accept legislation that not only would limit her own authority but also would severely limit the state’s ability to respond to the pandemic. Or she could veto it and let her current emergency order expire.
Kelly had no real choice but to put Kansas first, veto the bill and let the old order expire. In a news conference on Tuesday, she said she’s issuing a new state of disaster emergency declaration that will make her careful, phased approach to reopening the economy no longer an order but mere guidance to the county officials who will have to take it from here.
That’s “not ideal,” Kelly said, in some A-1 Kansas understatement. Because 105 county health departments with 105 different orders are bound to cause confusion, and a false sense of security, too. Not every county will act to protect its residents, either. So yes, this has the potential to turn the whole state into a dryer version of that nightmare Memorial Day party scene at the Lake of the Ozarks.
“I don’t anticipate having any orders,” like Kelly’s, Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell said. Or at least “nothing enforceable.” Riley County health officials have already said every business will be able to open again as of Wednesday, with a limit of 50 people. “I’m a little worried,” said Manhattan Mayor Usha Reddi.
Having the new order in place will, however, keep federal COVID-19 aid flowing to Kansas. The governor is also calling a June 3 special session of the Legislature for a do-over on the bill passed in such a rush last week.
Since it was Kelly’s supposedly power-mad overreach that was such a problem, you’d think Republicans would be delighted, right? And that they’d see local decisions made locally as a win for them.
Only now that it will be up to each county to decide whether to limit mass gatherings, require social distancing or close businesses, they seem to think their bullying has backfired.
“The veto of this legislation creates unnecessary confusion about the status of the current disaster declaration, what orders are still in place, and what Kansans can expect going forward,” said a statement from Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, Majority Leader Dan Hawkins and Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch. Well yes, and none of that had to happen, gentlemen.
The Republican leaders actually criticized the governor for jettisoning the phased reopening plan they hated so much. Now they’re lamenting that it was “suddenly, and with no warning, scrapped this afternoon.”
Kelly said the bill she vetoed “would make a mess of the state’s ability to adequately respond during times of crisis” and “would further delay our ability to get the CARES Act funding to communities across the state.”
It would also weaken the authority of local health officials to act in a crisis, and not incidentally was unconstitutional since the Kansas Constitution says no legislation can be passed after midnight on the last day of the session.
A shoutout on that front is due Republican state Rep. Mark Samsel, who tried to stop lawmakers from going into illegal overtime, and then kept his pledge to vote against any bill brought to a vote after midnight.
When he and his colleagues come back to Topeka on June 3, Republicans should declare victory and extend the governor’s emergency declaration through January.
Laura Kelly just gave them what they said they wanted most, which was to see Kansas wide open again in all counties that wanted to be. So unless that wasn’t the point after all, why wouldn’t they in return help her keep federal aid headed this way?