The calendar has now turned to September, meaning that cold snaps and fall colors are quickly approaching.
But the new month means that Gov. Laura Kelly is less than two weeks out from making a series of critical decisions related to the state’s COVID-19 response.
Under a deal with Republican lawmakers during June’s special session, the governor’s emergency declaration was extended to Sept. 15.
The order can be renewed at that point for up to 30 days, but Kelly would need six legislators on the State Finance Council to sign off on the move, meaning it would need bipartisan support.
Sept. 15 is also when Kelly can reimpose restrictions on businesses or issue other executive orders related to the emergency, although only for a maximum of 15 days. At that point, any renewal of those measures would also require State Finance Council approval.
For her part, the governor has said she hasn’t yet given much thought to extending her emergency declaration.
Similarly, she said she wants Kansans to embrace mask wearing and social distancing so businesses and schools can remain open in the state.
"I am all about being able to keep our economy thriving and our schools open," she said. "That is why I keep hounding the idea that please wear your masks, please stay away from people and please stay away from mass gatherings, because it is the only way we are going to keep businesses open and keep our schools open."
On Monday, Kelly reiterated that sentiment by saying her administration was "exploring every route" to balance the needs of the economy while at the same time protecting the health of residents.
Kelly first issued an emergency declaration in March as part of the state’s initial response to the pandemic.
But tensions flared in May after Kelly renewed the order, something Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Republican lawmakers argued she lacked the authority to do.
Eventually, the governor and the Legislature reached a compromise on legislation, House Bill 2016, that would extent the order until Sept. 15. The bill also curbed Kelly’s powers on a host of other issues, including closing schools and businesses.
Worries exist that any lapses in the order could jeopardize federal relief funds, something of particular concern to county and city governments, which are planning on using that money for a variety of uses.
Even Republican legislators acknowledge that the order is an important piece as it would also enable the state’s emergency management operations to run at full speed.
"We still have to have federal funds flow in, we still need the emergency operations center in place," said Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka. "We still need the emergency declaration in place, but the Legislature needs some overnight mechanisms."
Others, though, question whether the declaration is so vital for federal funds after all. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, pointed to correspondence from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that legislators received assuring them that a state declaration of emergency wasn’t required for accessing federal aid.
If Kelly does request another disaster order, Wagle said, the governor’s rationale for the move would likely dictate the State Finance Council’s response. Any further mandates would also hurt her case, she added.
"I think that where she would get into trouble is after declaring that emergency is if she issues other statewide orders, as she has in the past, relating to school attendance or relating to business closures," Wagle said.
Those new potential executive orders would muddy the waters further. Wagle insisted that Kansans wouldn’t welcome any further statewide mandates related to business or school restrictions, or even high school sports.
It isn’t clear whether Kelly is considering any of those options. But Wagle said business owners have said they are disappointed that the governor even has the power to reimpose the mandates for a short period of time.
"Business owners were quite upset when they realized she has the power to shut down businesses again for 15 days," Wagle said. "They resented that was in this bill. However, every bill is a negotiation between the House and Senate and the governor, and in order to get the provisions we do have in there for local control, we had to give up that one 15-day window."
The Sept. 15 end of the disaster emergency also means that two of Kelly’s more recent executive orders, suspending evictions and certain motor carrier rules, will expire.
Kelly has said that she would extend the eviction and foreclosure moratorium further if Congress does not take action on the matter, something it has so far declined to do.
The fight over executive powers won’t be going away anytime soon. Lawmakers believe that bigger-picture questions about updating the emergency management statute will be tackled in January.
Patton, chair of a special committee set up to specifically probe the Kansas Emergency Management Act, said that some of the key provisions of HB 2016 will expire in late January. That will give lawmakers a matter of weeks to hash out a solution.
That could range from establishing further guardrails over executive action during certain types of emergencies, such as a pandemic. Legislators noted during a round of committee hearings last week that current law was written with short-term disasters in mind, such as fires or tornadoes.
"We’ll have some quick decisions when we return in January," Patton said.
Wagle won’t be around for those discussions. The five-term lawmaker is set to retire before the new session gavels in.
Still, she said, all parties agree that a longer-term solution is needed beyond HB 2016.
"It was too difficult to deal with during a special session during a COVID crisis," Wagle said. "I think all parties need to agree to reevaluate where we are at in January."