Debate over reopening state grows increasingly bitter

Battle between Democratic governor, Republican-controlled Legislature clouded by election-year politics.


State News

May 20, 2020 - 9:56 AM

In 2020, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning announce a Medicaid expansion compromise. Unfortunately, then-Senate President Susan Wagle never held discussion on the issue, dooming its chances. Legislative leaders continue to stall on the issue, despite overwhelming support by the public. Photo by KANSAS NEWS SERVICE/STPEHN KORANDA/KCUR.ORG

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A battle in Kansas between the Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature over reopening the economy has grown increasingly bitter, clouded by election year politics present and past.

Gov. Laura Kelly has joined Democratic colleagues in other states including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in facing a GOP backlash over actions designed to contain the coronavirus pandemic. In Kansas, many Republican lawmakers expect to pass a measure to curb the governor’s power in emergencies when the Legislature convenes Thursday for a final day in session this year. That would force Kelly to choose between accepting their limits or having the state’s current state of emergency expire.

Republicans are taking cues from aggrieved business owners, but Kelly’s biggest legislative critic also is running for the U.S. Senate and struggling to get traction in a crowded field. Many GOP lawmakers say they have been ignored, and Kelly’s taking charge in the pandemic irks some Republicans who still see her 2018 election win as a fluke.

Kelly promised a bipartisan approach to governing when she took office in January 2019, but she has clashed at times with top Republicans. Many GOP lawmakers refuse to concede that her election meant a new direction for a state Republicans had nearly complete control over before she crashed their party..

“A conservative Republican leadership sees a Democratic governor and it wants to hit her like a pinata,” said Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, an alliance of Jewish and mainline Christian congregations that has given Kelly good marks for her handling of the pandemic.

Ahead of Thursday’s last legislative day, Kansas House and Senate committees have heard testimony questioning Kelly’s handling of the pandemic. Committees expect to approve bills aimed at reining in the broad power state law gives a governor in emergencies, with Republicans arguing in favor of legislative oversight and more local decision-making.

The same laws that give Kelly broad powers in emergency required her to ask lawmakers to extend her disaster declaration to keep those powers in force. Republican lawmakers last week extended her current declaration only through Monday, Memorial Day, even though she had asked them to keep it in place until mid-June. Kelly acknowledged Tuesday that she is likely boxed in if GOP lawmakers attach conditions to extending her declaration.

But Kelly insisted Tuesday that she’s focused only on public health and economic issues.

“I really have put on, sort of, visual and audio blinders,” she said during a Statehouse news conference.

Republicans said they’re looking to check the governor’s power so that people’s constitutional rights are not violated and that they’re responding to desperate pleas jobless workers and owners of shuttered businesses.

A survey last week from the University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that 71% of Americans favored requiring people to stay in their homes except for essential errands. But GOP lawmakers in Kansas see that as a general sentiment reflecting people’s concerns about getting infected.

“If you look at their behavior, they’re packing Wal-Mart. They’re packing Lowe’s. It’s springtime. They want the kids back in sports. They want the kids back in schools,” said Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican. “We need to create a safe environment for Kansans and put them back to work.”

Wagle has been a vocal critic of Kelly since Kelly took office, and she’s ramped up her criticism during the pandemic, even suggesting last week that the governor had become a “dictator.” Wagle also is running for an open U.S. Senate seat and is seen as badly trailing the leading contenders.

There’s also little doubt that a quicker reopening plays well with President Donald Trump’s political base in a state that Trump carried in 2016 by nearly 21 percentage points.

But legislative elections this year also are part of the backdrop. Republicans hope to keep their super-majorities in both chambers, making it easier for them to thwart Kelly’s initiatives ahead of the 2022 governor’s race.