TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republicans lawmakers in Kansas hashed out a plan Thursday night for limiting Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's power to direct the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic after the state's GOP attorney general suggested Kelly's been on “legally suspect” ground for three weeks.

Key provisions of the Republican plan would require Kelly to get permission from leaders of the GOP-controlled Legislature to keep businesses closed after May 31 or exercise other broad powers granted to governors during emergencies. Legislative leaders also would have the final say over how the state spends $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds.

The GOP's bill also would provide some protection to businesses against being sued if their employees or customers contracted the coronavirus. Doctors, clinics and hospitals also would be protected from lawsuits if they delayed non-coronavirus health services because of the pandemic.

Republican leaders hoped to push the measure through the House and Senate by early Friday morning, over vocal opposition from Kelly's fellow Democrats. Lawmakers convened Thursday for one final, extended day in session this year after a coronavirus-mandated break that began March 20.

People entering the Statehouse had their temperatures checked and were quizzed briefly about whether they’d had coronavirus symptoms before receiving red wrist bands that let them stay. Lawmakers’ social distancing grew lax over time; many Republicans did not wear masks, while most Democrats did.

The governor's office issued a statement accusing GOP lawmakers of trying to “cram” through a package with measures that “have not been thoroughly vetted.” But the statement stopped short of saying she would veto Republicans' bill.

Kelly is directing Kansas' coronavirus response under a state of emergency in effect only through Memorial Day. Republican lawmakers hope she'll accept limits on her power to avoid the risk of having the state of emergency end — and seeing 30 of her orders expire. Those orders include ones setting out how the state will reopen its economy, with some restrictions staying in place until June 23, as well as one preventing evictions for people who can't pay their rent.

Republican leaders are frustrated that Kelly ordered many businesses closed under a statewide stay-at-home order in place from March 30 until May 4 and mandated a phased reopening of the economy. Many GOP lawmakers argue that Kelly is moving too slowly to reopen the economy, and they’re upset that different types of businesses face different restrictions. Their arguments reflect complaints from business owners.

“It is just time to open up with reasonable regulations,” said state Sen. Eric Rucker, a conservative Topeka attorney who helped draft much of the measure.

But Democrats were frustrated, too, by Republicans' refusal to consider a bill simply extending the current state of emergency.

“This is nothing more than bushwacking,” Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said during an early round of talks.

Republicans said their proposals to shield health care providers and businesses from lawsuits would limit them to being sued for negligence or misconduct, such as in instances where businesses ignored public health guidelines. Critics said the protections were broader and would prevent them from being held accountable even in those instances.

Kelly has said she was open to proposals to protect health care providers, but their lobbyists feared such protections would be doomed when tied to proposals limiting her power. Rachelle Colombo, executive director of the Kansas Medical Society, decried “a lot of gamesmanship.”

“There's a lot of question about what will become law at the end of the day,” she said.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt released a legal opinion late Wednesday saying Kelly did not have the authority to issue a second state of emergency declaration just before her first expired May 1. State law appeared to require Kelly to get legislative leaders’ approval to extend that second declaration past mid-May, and GOP leaders made sure it runs only through Monday.

Kansas has continued to see coronavirus cases rise to more than 8,500 as of Wednesday, but that’s recently been driven largely by outbreaks in meatpacking plants, a state prison in Lansing and in the Kansas City area. Twenty-one of the state’s 105 counties reported no cases as of Wednesday, and 48 had seen no new cases within two weeks.

Republicans wrangled over and then dropped a plan to limit statewide business closures to another 15 days and then let officials in each of the state's 105 counties set their own rules. GOP senators briefly contemplated but ultimately didn’t push for a provision that might limit abortion services during the pandemic, which Kelly refused to do.

GOP leaders initially said they had to finish their work by midnight but then backed off when it became clear that it was not likely to happen.

In his legal opinion, Schmidt said the state’s emergency-management law is clear in allowing a governor to issue only one declaration during a single emergency. His opinion isn't binding but Republicans cited it repeatedly Thursday.

Some Democrats argued that the law still gives the governor a duty to declare an emergency whenever one exists, even if a past declaration has expired. Kelly's office sidestepped the issue for now.


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