Lawmakers look to clarify emergency powers during a disaster

Capitol Bureau

TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – Lawmakers are working to clear up what role the government has in deciding what is and isn’t allowed during a pandemic.

Members of the Special Committee on Kansas Emergency Management met at the Capitol on Monday. It was the start of three days of meetings to review emergency powers.

Lawmakers are trying to clarify who gets to make decisions during a crisis, like the coronavirus outbreak. For months the governor has been signing executive orders during a state of emergency, but they haven’t come without controversy.

“We’re in uncharted territories, and the law does not provide any guidance, so as we move along we’ve kind of been making it up and hoping we’re complying with what laws we have, and then trying to figure out what we need to do moving forward,” said Topeka Rep. Fred Patton, who chairs the committee.

The confusion has led to disagreements involving the governor, attorney general, top lawmakers, and local officials.

“Current law does not anticipate a disaster like this,” Patton said. “We have disaster declarations that deal with floods, fires, those types of things, and then animals and crops, nothing dealing with human pandemics. So that’s why we’ve had these back and forths between the legislature, the governor, and others is because we don’t have clearly defined statutes, so that’s what we’re trying to come up with.”

The legislature can make changes to the emergency management law when they return in January. It’s possible that Kansas will still be in the middle of a pandemic then. Lawmakers said it’s important to look at the problems now.

“It’s still fresh in our memory what’s going on, how it impacts various parts of the economy and various people in different ways, and that gives us a better judge than if we wait until it’s all over. It would be very easy to forget some of those things,” Shawnee Sen. Mike Thompson said.

Some people said the legislature needs to have a bigger role in representing what the people want during the crisis.

“Our hands are somewhat tied because we’re really tied to whatever the governor decides and what the state finance council decides,” Thompson said. “I think our constituents feel a little bit frustrated at our ability to have some influence over, say opening businesses, over how the schools are going to be opened. They can’t come to us and we can’t have our input.”

Patton said there is a need for both the governor and legislators to make decisions.

“I think it’s important we have legislative oversight, but I also realize we can’t be in this building every single day making decisions and somebody has to do that, and so that’s the governor, with some checks and balances by the other branches of government,” Patton said.

Legislators voted to make a change to the law earlier this year by limiting the governor’s emergency powers on public health and business closures.

The current state of emergency will end on Sep. 15, but that can be extended.

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