TOPEKA, Kan. – Two top Republican lawmakers said Monday that Kansas might not need to keep its state of emergency for COVID-19 in place past the end of March, signaling possible internal GOP divisions about keeping the pandemic restrictions further into the spring.
The comments from Senate President Ty Masterson, of Andover, and Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, of Wichita, are significant because a law enacted last month keeps the current state of emergency in place only through March 31. Lawmakers plan to revise the emergency management laws that govern the state’s response to the pandemic and haven’t yet discussed how far they want to let Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly extend the current state of emergency.
The GOP leaders’ comments also came as lawmakers were wrestling with an issue arising out of the pandemic. Some prosecutors want to suspend a law that sets deadlines for criminal trials to protect defendants’ right to speedy trials, fearing that a backlog of pandemic-delayed cases could lead many to be dismissed.
Masterson said with COVID-19 vaccines “taking hold” and some immunity among the state’s 2.9 million residents, he could see the state of emergency ending. Suellentrop said Kansas still could see some spikes in cases but added that he believes the state is “reaching the tail end of this.”
“It won’t be over for a while,” Suellentrop said in an interview. “Will we get a handle on it? I think that in the next 45 days we certainly will have a much better handle on it.”
The state’s average number of new daily confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases has dropped in recent weeks to lows not seen since late October.
Kansas saw an average of 899 new cases a day for the seven days that ended Monday, according to state health department data. The department added 1,398 cases since Friday to its pandemic total of 282,960. That’s almost one case for every 10 Kansas residents.
The department also added 96 additional COVID-19 deaths since Friday, pushing its COVID-19 death toll to 4,197. While Kansas averaged a record 55 new deaths a day for the seven days that ended Monday, part of the surge was due to past deaths being recorded when birth certificates were filed weeks after people died.
The health department reported that 8% of the state’s population had been vaccinated as of Monday, with more than 233,000 people receiving at least the first of two required doses. Almost 304,000 doses had been administered, or 73% of the 413,000 doses sent to Kansas by the federal government.
“Hopefully, by the end of March, when the time tolls, we’ll have a reason to shut it (the state of emergency) down,” Masterson said.
The law extending the current state of emergency until March 31 also kept in place previous restrictions on Kelly’s authority. It allows the state’s 105 counties to opt out of a mask mandate she issued in November, as well as other health orders from her. And it prevents her from closing businesses statewide again, as she did last spring.
Kelly has said she wants lawmakers to rethink giving local officials control over pandemic restriction, arguing that a “patchwork approach” doesn’t work. But many Republicans want counties in control, and some of them want the Legislature, including its rank-and-file members, to have more say over the state’s response to a pandemic.
It’s not yet clear how many Republican lawmakers have embraced ending the state of emergency March 31. Kelly’s office did not immediately respond to Masterson’s and Suellentrop’s comments, but she and officials in her administration have said repeatedly that having it in place makes it easier to move resources around the state and tap federal funding to cover the state’s costs.
Also, vaccinating the general population is likely to take months, and public health officials worry that case numbers will rise again with the arrival last week of a more contagious coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom.
“I haven’t even thought that far ahead, to tell you the truth,” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican.
During the pandemic, Kansas district courts have not been required to abide by a law that generally requires criminal defendants to be brought to trial within six months of entering a plea or be released. But Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert’s authority to extend speedy trial deadlines would expire with the state of emergency.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a bill proposed by prosecutors to suspend the deadline for cases filed by May 1, 2024, so that courts can catch up on holding trials that have been delayed. During hearings last week, some senators and defense attorneys questioned the measure, and Chair Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican, said Monday that she’s asked both sides to draft a compromise.