KASB Legislative Roundup, Fri. May 15

The Kansas House Judiciary Committee heard a briefing on the authority of the governor and local health officials to implement orders and restrictions for disasters and emergencies on Friday. 

The briefing was a preview of a hearing Monday expected to feature the Legislature’s chief legal advisor, the state Attorney General and a representative of the Governor’s office. The Legislature endorsed Gov. Laura Kelly’s original disaster declaration in March, but many Republicans have criticized the pace of her plan to remove restrictions on business, social and religious gatherings and other activities. 

Last week, the State Finance Council, composed of the governor and legislative leaders, would only approve the governor’s latest disaster declaration through May 25, rather than June 14 as she requested. Some GOP legislators have suggested tying any extension to passing limits on the governor’s authority during the one-day final session of the 2020 Legislature next Thursday, May 21. 

The committee also held a long discussion Friday concerning possible legislation on legal defenses against COVID-19 lawsuits but took no action. The Senate Judiciary Committee meets Monday through Wednesday to consider the same two issues: COVID-related liability issues and the governor’s authority to deal with disasters and emergencies. 

Also Friday, the House Appropriations Committee held a lengthy discussion about legislative oversight over $2 billion in federal aid for COVID-related expenses received through the Governor’s office. While not all details are known about how those funds can be spent, it appears they cannot be used to replace lost state and local government tax revenue due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. 

Kelly says she will be setting up a steering committee to manage the use of these funds and suggested it will include members of the Legislature. But the committee has not yet been named and many Appropriations Committee members said they wanted stronger oversight through the legislative budget process. 

Unless legislators try to reopen the 2020 and 2021 budgets approved in March, it appears the Legislature’s role would be advisory and review only, as the governor currently has the authority to spend those funds provided federal rules for the programs are followed. 

In a media conference today, Kelly reiterated that the state will face deep shortfalls in revenue unless the federal government provide replacement funding. A healthy ending balance should allow the state to finish the fiscal year ending June 30 without budget cuts, and no cuts are planned for next year until the state finds out if more federal aid will be provided. Without additional revenue, the state general fund is projected to face a deficit of over 8 percent, and over half of the state general fund is appropriated for K-12 state aid. 

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