Kansas should feel no obligation to satisfy litigious appetites

Gov. Laura Kelly was right to veto legislation that created a special fund to settle possible lawsuits in reaction to COVID-19 measures.



May 25, 2021 - 10:35 AM

Gov. Laura Kelly visits with management at Garnett's East Kansas Agri-Energy ethanol plant on May 19.

The idea of giving sole discretion on how to spend up to $500 million of federal funds to just three people did not sit well with Gov. Laura Kelly.

For that, and other reasons, she vetoed Senate Bill 273 on Friday.

Good for her.

Kansas’s portion of the American Rescue Plan Act is more than $4.9 billion and is intended for Kansas and its counties and cities to address the continuing economic fallout from the pandemic. 

Instead, legislators decided to apportion almost one-third of the money to create a special fund to settle possible litigation waged against governmental entities for pandemic-related decisions that forced businesses to temporarily close their doors or limit their number of patrons.

If legislators override Gov. Kelly’s veto on Wednesday — the last day of the session — Allen County stands to lose $840,000, Iola, $258,000 and Humboldt, $87,500.

THE IMPETUS for SB 273 are the “squeaky wheels,” primarily Wichita-based bars and clubs and, most importantly, Genesis Fitness Clubs, whose owner, Rodney Steven, has threatened to sue Kansas over lost business. Never mind that Steven has already received millions in pandemic-related grants and loans.

Earlier in the session, Steven tried to finagle a property tax exemption for his fitness empire, which thankfully failed. The work-around is SB 273.

Not to be lost is that Ty Masterson, Senate president, hails from Andover, a Wichita suburb.

WITH HER VETO, Kelly said the legislation is unnecessary because the state already has the SPARK, Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas, task force to review petitions for pandemic-related funding.

Last year, SPARK distributed more than $238 million in pandemic aid to businesses across the state. Of that, Allen County received $2.4 million which it directed to 25 local businesses, 22 nonprofits and social services, and seven municipalities.

Businesses also were aided by outright grants through the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

KELLY was generous in her veto, saying the legislation is “well-intentioned,” but pointed out it violates  Rescue Plan guidelines. Most critically, the federal legislation prohibits using the funds to resolve potential legal claims against state or local governments. Also in question is the state’s authority to direct municipalities to set aside a certain amount as well as limiting the special funds to private enterprises.

Few have threatened to sue governmental entities because of their decisions to safeguard the public against the spread of COVID-19. But, of course, there are always those who will try. Kansas should feel no obligation to grease their wheels.

Though she didn’t say it, the fact that only three people would be unilaterally responsible for the disbursements also rubbed many the wrong way.