GOP objects to idea of creating large state board to investigate root causes
TOPEKA — Republicans in the Kansas Senate undercut a plan for responding to the crisis in opioid overdose deaths by gutting a bill unanimously passed by the Kansas House and converting it into a vehicle to blunt authority of state and local officials to issue public health directives during disease outbreaks.
The maneuver led to a tumultuous scene on the Senate floor Tuesday pitting conservative GOP senators irritated about handling of the COVID-19 pandemic against a bipartisan minority interested in restoring the version of House Bill 2390 that passed the House on a vote of 121-0.
The Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee had deleted from the House bill authorization for a new state board to search for answers to the rise in fentanyl poisonings and fatalities in Kansas. The committee led by Eudora GOP Sen. Beverly Gossage also cut from the House bill a softening of state paraphernalia law to permit use of test strips to determine whether fake prescription pills or other drugs were laced with fentanyl.
The committee added to the bill Hutchinson Republican Sen. Mark Steffen’s strategy for placing in state law restraints on the influence of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary and county health officers. Steffen says those public health officials bungled COVID-19 so badly they should be limited to issuing recommendations — not mandates — in future emergencies.
Steffen said it was imperative the Legislature strip KDHE secretaries and county officials of power to quarantine or otherwise restrict freedom of movement during a health calamity.
Sen. Kristen O’Shea, a Topeka Republican, initiated debate on a rare effort on the Senate floor to delete all the Senate committee’s changes to the bill and reclaim the House’s vision. Her plea was rejected 13-21 and the bill was advanced to final action Wednesday in the Senate.
“I’m not in favor of what the committee did with it,” O’Shea said. “We can follow the House’s lead on this important policy.”
Senate Democratic leader Dinah Sykes of Lenexa piled on: “This bill was gutted in committee. Important legislation was deleted.”
Sykes said the GOP’s distortion of the House bill was odd because the Senate already passed Steffen’s bill declawing Kansas public health officials. In February, Senate Bill 6 authored by Steffen was passed 22-18 by the Senate. In addition, it was Kansas Republicans who took the lead during the 2022 election cycle demanding action against rise in accidental U.S. opioid deaths.
Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, advised his Senate colleagues to reject O’Shea’s motion to unravel the bill, arguing lawmakers should be respectful of work by committees at the Capitol.
“I don’t have a lot of respect for this committee,” O’Shea said.
Steffen, too, threw water on O’Shea’s rebellion. He particularly disliked the House’s concept of appointing a state board with two-dozen members to make recommendations on opioid usage. He said other state government workers could fill that advisory role.
“There were no rash decisions made” by the Senate committee, Steffen said. “This was incredible redundant government that’s not necessary.”