Panel can set foundation for special session; Kansas surpasses 6,000 deaths
TOPEKA — Top House and Senate lawmakers agreed Monday to establish a special legislative committee to examine options for thwarting federal policy layered with COVID-19 government mandates tied to the pandemic that so far killed more than 6,000 residents of Kansas.
The Legislative Coordinating Council convened online for less than 10 minutes to authorize five days of meetings for members of the new Special Committee on Government Overreach and Impact on COVID-19 Mandates. The joint committee could lay the foundation for a special session of the Legislature. An alternative would be for committee members to make recommendations to the 2022 Legislature that convenes in January.
“We want to make sure that we do everything possible for the citizens of this state to make sure that these overreaching mandates can be handled lawfully. I’m excited for this group,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican.
Senate Vice President Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson, said the Legislature needed to do whatever was necessary to deter the federal government’s intrusion into personal liberties of Kansas.
“We need to check the federal government pretty hard and stop them. It’s just completely out of control,” he said. “We need to put a checkmark on the federal government. Let them know where we stand.”
The GOP-led committee would consist of 11 members chosen by the House speaker and Senate president. They would be expected to meet during the next month or so to consider legal issues, public testimony and possible recommendations for deflecting actions of the administration of President Joe Biden.
Some conservative GOP legislators have urged Ryckman and President Ty Masterson to endorse convening of a special legislative session to rebuff the Democratic president’s approach to masks, testing, vaccination and other pandemic edicts.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said the committee ought to move beyond federal executive orders related to the pandemic to consider how the state could convince more people to adhere to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on avoiding COVID-19.
He said the Legislature should be supportive of vaccinations and other preventative steps “to help people so they don’t die from this disease.”
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Johnson County Democrat, said the death of 6,024 people during the pandemic demanded less politics and more science. The Biden administration, she said, concentrated on a vaccination program or regular testing of personnel.
“What are our solutions?” Sykes said. “I just don’t want this committee to politicize this any more. How do we actually protect Kansans, keep our economy growing? I want solutions and not just a time that we can fight against Democrats and Republicans.”
Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said activity to politicize the pandemic was being led by the White House.
“Bad news is I don’t think we can make it more political than the Biden administration has made it,” he said.
Masterson said the goal of the special committee was to concentrate on federal action, but panel members could weigh restraint of city, county or school officials with power to issue pandemic mandates.
The new committee of five senators and six representatives needs to sort through the possibilities before making a decision about calling all 165 members back to Topeka at an estimated cost of $65,000 per day, Masterson said.
“I understand we have some new members who are energetic,” Masterson said. “We’re anticipating lots of energy in our constituent base.”
First-term Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, said last week during an anti-vaccination gathering hosted by Kansas For Health Freedom that he intended to seek signatures of two-thirds of the Legislature’s members to force a special session before January. He said he had requested a special session four times without success.
Senate Majority Leader Larry Alley, a Winfield Republican, said the Legislature’s special committee ought to consider ways of dealing with hospitals requiring thousands of employees in Kansas to receive coronavirus vaccinations. He said the state needed physicians and nurses, including those who oppose the vaccination, on the job at hospitals struggling to care for the flow of COVID-19 patients.
The special committee’s work shouldn’t inhibit the possibility of the LCC placing a ban on use of government funding to enforce federal mandates, said State Rep. Blaine Finch, a Republican from Ottawa on the Legislative Coordinating Council.
In addition, he said, legislative staff should be authorized to work with the Kansas attorney general’s office to prepare legal challenges to federal executive orders.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported Monday that more than 400,000 Kansans have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 2021. More than 13,700 people have been hospitalized for COVID-19 and 6,024 people stricken with the virus have died.
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