Kansas plan could give $500M in COVID relief to businesses


TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – Republicans pushed a plan through the Kansas Legislature early Saturday that could provide roughly $500 million to small businesses to offset losses tied to state and local restrictions meant to check COVID-19’s spread last year.

The measure would require the state, cities and counties to set aside part of their federal coronavirus relief funds to pay claims from small businesses. It was the last bill lawmakers considered before shutting down their annual session except for a formal adjournment May 26.

The Republican-controlled Legislature approved a bipartisan public school funding bill and finished a $21 billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The budget also included provisions to prevent the state from issuing COVID-19 vaccine passports and to restrict efforts to track down close contacts of people with the virus.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly signaled that she plans to sign the education bill, and she’s expected to approve most to all of the budget’s items. But she has not said what she’ll do with the business-compensation bill.

Supporters said creating a system for considering and paying claims could avoid a larger total payout from potential lawsuits over COVID-19 restrictions, but doing so would help small businesses that cannot afford to hire attorneys to sue state or local officials. Businesses with 50 or fewer employees could file claims instead of suing.

“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 votes on the bill were 68-42 in the House and 24-14 in the Senate, demonstrating that at least a few Republicans in each chamber had misgivings and Democrats in both were overwhelmingly opposed.

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 considered compensation figures as high as $2 billion; the Senate passed a plan this week for $700 million, while the House hadn’t debated any plan before Saturday.

But House Judiciary Chair Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican, said: “It’s going to be good for businesses, to avoid litigation.”

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 GOP legislators believe the restrictions on businesses were too onerous and unnecessary.

Democrats suggested that lawmakers weren’t doing enough to ensure that businesses receiving compensation used some of the money to help their workers. Others opposed forcing cities and counties to set aside coronavirus relief funds for the compensation and questioned whether the state has the authority to do it.

And some were upset that an appointed, three-member board would review claims – in meetings closed to the public to protect businesses’ financial information.

“Really, this could be back-door deals,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat. “I have some serious concerns that we don’t have enough transparency.”

While the appointed board would examine claims, its decisions would be reviewed by a joint legislative committee, and legislative leaders would have the final say.

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. The votes on the budget measure were 98-21 in the House and 26-12 in the Senate.

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.


Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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