| 21 May 2024, Tuesday |

Kansas legislators approve COVID-19 relief for businesses

TOPEKA, Kan.: Republican lawmakers in Kansas passed proposals by early Saturday to ban COVID-19 vaccine passports, limit efforts to track down the close contacts of people with the coronavirus and provide up to $500 million to businesses that closed or faced pandemic restrictions.

The GOP-controlled Legislature approved budget legislation Friday night that included a ban on state agencies from issuing vaccine passports and limits on COVID-19 contact tracing, sending it to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Some conservative Republicans gave up on trying to pass a separate bill with more expansive versions of those policies that also would remain in effect after the next state budget expires at the end of June 2022.

Three senators and three House members haggled over but ultimately struck a deal on a bill that would set aside federal COVID-19 relief funds headed to the state, cities and counties. Those funds would be used to pay claims to businesses that can show they were harmed financially by being forced to shut down or by limits on their operations.

The votes were 68-42 in the House and 24-14 in the Senate, sending the bill to Kelly and allowing lawmakers to adjourn until a formal ceremony May 26 ending their annual session.

While creating a system for considering and paying claims could avoid a larger total payout from lawsuits, it also would help small businesses that cannot afford to hire attorneys to sue state or local officials, supporters said.

“This process is perfect for them,” said Ryan Kriegshauser, an attorney for a Wichita fitness studio and its owner, who sued the state in December. “That’s really what it’s for, is the mom and pop shops that got shut down, because a lot of the big box retailers, they were operating.”

The Wichita fitness studio and state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican now running for governor, agreed to put the fitness studio’s lawsuit on hold to give the Legislature a chance to provide compensation. GOP lawmakers have considered compensation figures as high as $2 billion; the Senate passed a plan this week to set aside $700 million, while the House hadn’t voted on any plan before Friday.

Kelly imposed a stay-at-home order for five weeks last spring and then started a phased reopening of the the economy before Republican lawmakers intervened and gave local officials control over restrictions. Many of them believe the restrictions on businesses were too onerous and unnecessary.

Democrats, meanwhile, were wary of the business compensation proposal.

Some argued that businesses receiving compensation should be required to use some of it on employees’ wages. Others were upset that an appointed, three-member board would review claims — in meetings closed to the public to protect businesses’ financial information. Some opposed taking half the funds for compensation from cities’ and counties’ allocation of federal coronavirus relief dollars.

“I don’t like this bill,” said Democratic Rep. John Carmichael, of Wichita. “I never though it was necessary.”

An appointed board still would examine claims, but its decision would be reviewed by a joint legislative committee, and legislative leaders would have the final say. Businesses with 50 or fewer employees would be eligible to file claims.

Kelly and GOP lawmakers have battled over who will have final control over how the state allocates $4.8 billion from the last coronavirus relief package. They ultimately settled on giving the governor both a role and veto power in final decisions but gave lawmakers control of the board that would have to approve all spending plans first.

Meanwhile, conservatives pushing for a ban on vaccine passports and limits on contact tracing had to settle for the provisions in budget legislation that would be in effect for a little more than a year. That budget bill passed the House, 98-21, and the Senate, 26-12.

Vaccine passports arose as an issue even though Kelly said last month that none would be issued by her administration. The provision included in budget legislation would prevent any state agency from spending any funds on issuing passports, requiring people to use them or denying people without them access “to a place accessible to the general public.”

But the ban wouldn’t apply to cities and counties and would expire in a little more than a year.

The Legislature enacted limits on COVID-19 contract tracing last year at Schmidt’s urging, preventing people with the virus from being forced to disclose close contacts. He saw them as a way to protect people’s privacy, but those rules expired Saturday.

A budget provision would allow the state Department of Health and Environment to spend money on tracing only if participation was voluntary and the tracing did not use cellphone location data.

  • Associated Press