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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly vetoes GOP bill aimed at banning all future mask mandates

Kansas City Star logo Kansas City Star 5/13/2022 Katie Bernard, The Kansas City Star

A Kansas bill that would ban mask mandates from any government institution on any public health matter is circling the drain following a veto from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Kelly announced the veto late Friday on the grounds that the legislation would constrain public health authorities from responding to outbreaks of any illness.

“I have consistently opposed vaccine passports and mandating any COVID-19 vaccination. However, this bill goes beyond COVID-19 and implements a one-size-fits-all approach for all infectious diseases. It significantly limits any government entity’s response to any infectious disease outbreak,” Kelly said in a veto message.

The move wasn’t a surprise. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Kelly said she was against any laws that would tie the hands of public health officials in the future.

The odds that Republican legislative leaders can override Kelly’s veto are low.

The bill barely achieved the simple majorities needed to pass the Kansas House and Senate during late night hours last month.

The Senate approved the bill with 23 votes, four short of a veto-proof majority, while the House approved the bill with 64 votes, 20 shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override Kelly.

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Baxter Springs Republican who supported the bill, said Kelly offered no valid reasons to retain mask mandates in Kansas. State employees who need masks for safety reasons will wear them voluntarily, he said.

Hilderbrand said Kelly’s vetoes, including a separate move Friday to reject a bill barring the executive branch from entering consent decrees on election law, indicate the governor prefers to bypass the Legislature.

“She still wants to have the ability if she’s reelected and for the remainder of her time in office to govern by paper and pen, which is not the way our government is supposed to run,” Hilderbrand said.

The bill is a pared down version of legislation Senate Republicans pursued this year in an attempt to rewrite Kansas public health law to avoid a repeat of mask mandates, business closures and capacity restrictions seen in the early days of COVID-19.

During the summer of 2020, Gov. Laura Kelly issued indoor mask requirements statewide. Individual counties, however, could opt out.

The final product, which House and Senate negotiators agreed to in a last minute conference committee, would bar any government official from requiring mask use, ban COVID-19 vaccine requirements and remove the KDHE Secretary’s power to use police to enforce isolation and quarantine orders.

Any override attempt would start in the Kansas Senate because of procedural rules. Even if the attempt passes the Senate, the House is unlikely to gain the votes needed to pass the bill.

The package was only brought for a vote after Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, refused to hold a vote on the bill legalizing sports betting until the House acted on masks.

Several House Republicans expressed major concerns about the policy’s impact on public health in future emergencies and non-COVID outbreaks, such as a Tuberculosis outbreak in a prison. The law would also undercut existing protocol for state employees dealing with foreign disease investigations in agriculture and working in state-run biohazard labs.

“I wish that it was a world where everyone was responsible and everyone would wear face masks responsibly,” Rep. John Eplee, an Atchison Republican and physician, said during debate. “The fact is we live in a world where human nature takes over and people don’t always do the responsible thing.”

©2022 The Kansas City Star. Visit kansascity.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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