Kansas Senate and House GOP leaders are frustrated by Gov. Kelly’s phased plan to reopen society; U.S. Rep. Davids and U.S. Sen. Moran call for greater oversight of businesses receiving federal emergency loans

This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to your local newspaper.

TOPEKA — Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle said Friday the plan offered by Gov. Laura Kelly to reopen the state’s economy requires action to "rein in an out-of-control" governor.

Wagle, a Wichita Republican seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, said the proposal outlined Thursday night by the Democratic governor landed with a thud for workers, small business owners and farmers waiting for doors of commerce to reopen. She said the governor should step back so county health officials could make precise steps to hold COVID-19 at bay.

"We need to return control to them and allow them to open businesses up at 50% capacity with safe social distancing and sanitation programs in place," Wagle said.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said the governor’s changes to rules of business operation had caused much confusion. There are private businesses contemplating litigation to secure the right to reopen, he said. The Legislature might reconvene, he said, but no decision was likely until May 6 on that possibility.

"The next step is a conversation with the governor to be part of the process," Ryckman said. "I still think the best option is we all try to work together."

He said there was a chance the State Finance Council, which includes the governor and legislators, might not extend the governor’s orders beyond May 18.

State health officials said Friday the number of Kansas fatalities linked to the coronavirus increased to 130 and the number of positive tests reached 4,449. More than 500 Kansans have been hospitalized with COVID-19, and cases have been detected in 81 of 105 counties.

Other voices

Conservative political activists and Republican legislators shared perspectives ranging from outright hostility to mild apprehension and relief at Kelly’s three-phase plan for wresting the economy away from the threat of COVID-19.

There was appreciation that the stay-at-home order signed by Kelly would expire on Sunday, but agitation that certain businesses could wait weeks to reopen.

The Kansas Policy Institute, a Wichita think tank dedicated to shrinking government, demanded the governor release companies from quarantine. Nine members of the Kansas Legislature signed a letter drafted by the the American Legislative Exchange Council to President Donald Trump and governors urging resumption of business activity "as quickly as possible."

State Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat running for the Kansas Senate, said Kelly presented a thoughtful, well-reasoned plan to restart the state’s economy while protecting the health of our citizens.

"It's a difficult needle to thread and she did it," he said.

While the Kansas Chamber acknowledged the health-policy necessity of gradual resumption of commerce, the business lobbying organization said Kelly’s strategy had to take into account the 215,000 Kansans who filed for unemployment in the past six weeks.

"It has been a difficult few months for Kansas," said Alan Cobb, president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber. "More long-term damage will be done to the Kansas economy the longer all businesses are not allowed to fully operate."

He recommended business consider legal action if county officials or local health officers became too unreasonable.

Kelly’s approach

Kelly, the Democrat elected governor in November 2018, said phase one of her plan would lift the statewide stay-home order in place for five weeks.

Her framework is structured to return flexibility to local community response efforts, while still operating under a statewide regulatory baseline. In the first phase, the state will allow many retail establishments to reopen. Restaurants will be able to serve customer groups kept 6 feet apart and if seating is limited to 50% of normal.

On May 18, at the start of phase two, the governor plans to allow bars, nightclubs, casinos, theaters, gyms, hair salons, museums and community centers to open. In addition, mass gathering limits will rise from 10 to 30 at that juncture.

In the final phase initiated around June 1, facilities with seating for more than 2,000, fairs, festivals and graduation ceremonies will be allowed. K-12 public schools and universities remain closed.

"I am by nature a very cautious person, and I think that lends itself well to this type of issue because if we go too far too fast, there is a very strong likelihood that we will throw ourselves right back to square one and see a very sharp spike in positives, a spike in hospitalizations, and a spike in deaths," Kelly said. "And I don't want that to happen, so we decided to roll it out gradually, thoughtfully, and give us time to evaluate the impact of our actions."

The governor said she would evaluate the state’s disease spread, testing rates, death rates, hospitalizations, ability of state and local public health authorities to contain outbreaks and conduct contact tracing and personal protective equipment availability when determining if the state should move to the next phase.

Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the governor’s plan was a measured approach that granted county governments the opportunity to expand limitations. In the next six weeks, the state intends to gradually reduce restrictions on commerce.

"It’s always controversial," Norman said. "I’m sure we’ll get people who think we’re too liberal. I’m sure there’s others that will think it’s too restrictive. I think that means we’re trying to be in the middle."

More oversight

U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., sent letters to the U.S. Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration requesting release of the complete list of businesses receiving small business loans through the Paycheck Protection Program adopted by Congress.

There has been concern expressed about large, publicly traded companies gaining access to the $700 billion in relief funding at the expense of smaller businesses. The cash is to be used to help companies keep employees on the payroll.

"I’ve heard from small business owner across Kansas who are struggling to access relief loan programs while large corporations with deep pockets are having no problem," said Davids, who serves the 3rd District in the Kansas City area. "These agencies must release the complete list of businesses that have received these small business loans, so Kansans can see how their tax dollars are being spent."

She said companies not interested in public scrutiny while receiving federal taxpayer-funded loans shouldn’t accept the money.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said the PPP program came together quickly and was administered by the SBA, which processed $350 billion in two weeks when it normally issues $30 billion annually.

"Never can we not have concerns about abuse of a government program," Moran said. "There needs to be oversight. I’m all in favor of review of the program. I support the idea of release of information about recipients. Public tax dollars require public knowledge."

Revenue update

The Kansas Department of Revenue reported Friday tax collections in April were down more than 50% from April 2019 as businesses statewide closed their doors in an attempt to slow spread of COVID-19.

The state's total tax collections for April were $578.1 million. Compared to April in the last fiscal year, the total was down from $1.18 billion or 51%. The state’s revenue estimate revised in mid-April indicated Kansas government could expect to lose at least $1.2 billion in tax revenue through June 2021.

A significant portion of the decline in April was due to the decision to extend the deadline for filing state income tax returns until July 15, which pushed revenue into the next fiscal year.

The revenue department said that in April individual income tax collections were $282.5 million; $1.2 million or 0.4% more than the updated estimate. Corporate income tax collections in April came in at $37.8 million, which was 2.3% or $888,000 below the projection.

Retail sales tax collections were $184.1 million; $2.3 million or 1.2% below the estimate.

The hair thing

State Rep. Cheryl Helmer, a Republican from Mulvane, shared with the entire Legislature her request for information about the governor’s hair. It was in the context of Kelly’s decision to leave hairdresser and barber shops closed in the first phase of her strategy to reopen the economy.

"I am respectfully requesting the name and Kansas license No. of the hairdresser who has touched, colored, cut, performed any service on or with Governor Laura Kelly's hair since March 12," Helmer said.

On Friday, Kelly told the editorial advisory board of The Topeka Capital-Journal that she was aware some people thought she was violating the order by getting her hair done on the sly.

The governor said she made the decision 37 years ago to marry an Eagle Scout who happened to be good with his hands. Reluctantly, she allowed her husband to give her a trim.

"It scared the bejesus out of me when I first let him do that, but I had no choice," Kelly said. "Desperate times call for desperate measures.

"I'm also not stupid. Do I really not think if I went to my hairdresser or I had my hairdresser come over to my house that that wouldn't get out there? I mean, politically, that's not something I would do, but I'm also not one of those ’do as I say, not as I do’ types."