Kansas lawmakers want to challenge a COVID-19 vaccine policy that doesn’t exist yet

by Abigail Censky, KCUR and Kansas News Service

Republicans in Kansas are intent on pushing back against a forthcoming federal vaccine policy for private employers. The only problem? It isn’t written yet. But the politics of a non-existent policy are benefiting both sides.

Kansas Republicans opposing COVID-19 vaccine requirements are pushing ahead with an effort to sidestep a federal vaccine mandate that hasn’t yet been written. GOP members in the Legislature created a special committee to look for ways to fight President Joe Biden’s proposed policy, which they see as an egregious overreach of government.

“I hope that it will open some eyes in the community,” said state Sen. Mike Thompson, a former meteorologist who circulated misinformation and cast doubt on the efficacy of vaccines and masks throughout the pandemic.

“We’ve got a lot of folks who are reaching out to us,” he said, “begging us for help.”

It’s the latest move by Republicans to challenge public health policies aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus as the state comes down from a summer surge in cases fueled by the delta variant. The new committee was formed the day Gov. Laura Kelly ordered flags be flown half-staff in honor of the 6,024 Kansans who’ve died of COVID-19 and before the final federal policy has been published.

In the coming weeks, the nine Republicans will likely overpower the committee’s three, not yet appointed, Democrats to determine if it’s possible to thwart an impending federal vaccine mandate.

Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation are also mounting several legislative challenges, and the state’s Republican attorney general has sworn he’ll challenge the policy. However, there’s one very large problem: the fine print of the policy mandating employers with more than 100 employees to require vaccinations or regular testing doesn’t exist yet.

Some lawmakers wanted a special session to fight the mandate, but Republican Senate President Ty Masterson said it might be premature.

“Even if there were a special session, what we would do is we would have a committee meeting hearings, right?” he said when lawmakers formed the committee.

A special legislative session could cost Kansas taxpayers up to $65,000 dollars a day.

“It’s a little bit of cart and the horse,” Masterson said of calling lawmakers back to Topeka when there are still questions surrounding what the policy will look like.

“All of that’s a little bit up in the air right now,” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer with the Association of State and Territorial Health Professionals.

“If this is framed as what we call a preemptive policy,” he said, “then states may be very limited in being able to do any laws of their own about this.”

Only one state, Montana, bans private employers from requiring employees to be vaccinated, and a Montana legal firm is currently challenging the law. Similar legislation in Kansas failed to pass the state Senate earlier this year.

According to the National Academy for State Health Policy, vaccination mandates for state workers are banned in eight states, but state employees are required to be vaccinated in 19 states.

The uncertainty about the vaccine mandate hasn’t stopped Kansas Republicans in Washington from producing a flurry of legislation ahead of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration publishing its emergency temporary standard.

Sen. Roger Marshall introduced an amendment, which failed along party lines, attempting to block the government from using any federal funds to enforce COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Rep. Tracey Mann also introduced a bill attempting to block OSHA from creating any temporary emergency standards around vaccines, and Rep. Ron Estes has announced he plans to introduce a bill to guarantee religious exemptions under the emergency standard.

Mann and Estes have also signed onto a letter urging Biden to drop the policy. Attorneys general in 24 states, including Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, also vowed to challenge the policy once it’s written.

Yet congressional Republicans may be bound by the same constraints as state lawmakers if the federal policy is written to prevent loopholes. The administration could also be slow walking the rolling out of an official policy while companies begin to take action.

“That could be part of the tactic,” Plescia said, “just stall the implementation for so long that, by the time it clears, the time to do this has passed.”

As an example, the new CEO of Cerner Corp., David Feinberg, instituted a vaccine mandate for the Kansas City area’s largest private employer in early October.

Retired labor attorney Charles Gordon posited in the Wall Street Journal that a policy that never arrives, “may prove more useful as a Sword of Damocles than a real requirement.”

The very idea of challenging the policy is also politically expedient for Republicans. Polling from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research indicates a majority of Americans support Biden’s potential vaccine mandate or regular testing for private employers, but 6 in 10 Republicans oppose the policy.

Plescia is worried in states like Kansas, the Legislature could threaten long-standing public health policies. A challenge to COVID-19 mandates could open Pandora’s box, weakening popular public health rules like child vaccination requirements in schools or other public health policies.

“From what we’ve seen recently with a lot of other curtailing of public health powers,” Plescia said, “we are concerned about this. It could be the thin edge of a wedge in some states.”

Jim McLean of the Kansas News Service contributed to this story.
Abigail Censky is the political reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @AbigailCensky or email her at abigailcensky (at) kcur (dot) org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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See more at https://www.kcur.org/news/2021-10-07/kansas-lawmakers-want-to-challenge-a-covid-19-vaccine-policy-that-doesnt-exist-yet

Republicans see Kansas governor’s order creating child advocate as ‘slap in the face’

by Sherman Smith, Kansas Reflector

Topeka — Gov. Laura Kelly’s independent action to establish an Office of the Child Advocate a day ahead of the inaugural meeting of a child welfare oversight committee didn’t impress Republican members of the panel.

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican who serves as chairman of the committee, called the governor’s decision to bypass legislators through executive order a “slap in the face.”

“Don’t get me wrong, the Office of the Child Advocate is a needed position, a position that has been needed for a long time,” Hilderbrand said at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. “I just find it very, very troublesome that the governor decided on the eve of the first meeting of this committee, which one of our tasks was to look at this, they decide to issue an executive order forming it.”

The Democratic governor on Monday announced she was forming the office and relocating divisions of two state agencies under the authority of the Department of Administration. Her allies in the Legislature praised the move after years in which efforts to install a child advocate failed to gain interest or got tied up in political wrangling, as was the case in the 2021 session.

“Everybody is in agreement here that we needed this office,” said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam. “This office is going to be good for the kids. I applaud the governor’s efforts by taking the reins and establishing this office now and not wasting any more time letting it get caught up in politics.”

Ousley for five years has pursued legislation to establish a child advocate to field complaints about the Kansas foster care system and investigate them. He secured bipartisan support for a House bill this past session that would have had the advocate report directly to the Legislature, but House leadership killed the bill before it received a vote.

The Senate passed a competing plan that would have placed the office under Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican trying to unseat Kelly as governor in next year’s elections.

Child advocates opposed the politically charged Senate plan but have long pushed for more accountability of the privatized foster care system administered by the Department for Children and Families.

Republicans complained that Kelly’s executive order allows the governor to choose a child advocate without legislative approval. They also questioned whether the decision to relocate positions through an executive order is constitutional. Those moves typically require the governor to propose a reorganization, which the Legislature has to approve.

By placing the new office within the governor’s administration, said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, the governor is merely shifting complaints from one department to another.

“We will learn about harms and dangers and failures of the system when our reporters call us and say, ‘Would you please comment on this?’”
Baumgardner said. “We’re not going to find out this from the office of child advocacy. We’re not going to find out from the secretary of DCF.”

Democrats praised the governor for establishing the office after years of legislative inaction.

“Can we take some joy in the fact that what has been established will help save lives of children?” said Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park. “To me, that’s a very big deal. That’s a huge victory for the kids in our state. We’ve been waiting. The kids have been waiting. Advocates have been waiting for years for something like this to be established.”

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, pointed to the recent death of a 17-year-old who died in police custody. The boy had been placed in a foster home by Saint Francis Ministries, the state’s largest foster care provider.

When the foster father called Saint Francis about the boy’s erratic behavior, Faust-Goudeau said, he was told it would be two hours before someone could help. Instead, he was taken into custody by police and died after an altercation at a juvenile detention facility.

“Had that foster dad been able to talk to someone directly right away, that young man may still be alive,” Faust-Goudeau said.

Kansas Reflector stories, www.kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

See more at https://kansasreflector.com/2021/10/05/republicans-see-kansas-governors-order-creating-child-advocate-as-slap-in-the-face/.

Governor establishes child welfare advocacy division, skirts legislative disputes

by Noah Taborda, Kansas News Service

Topeka — Gov. Laura Kelly announced Monday the establishment of a Division of the Child Advocate, circumventing an effort by the Kansas Senate to place an office overseeing the child welfare system under the direction of an attorney general seeking higher office next year.

The legislation proposed by the Senate was opposed by some Democrats and advocacy groups because it would give Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is running for governor, unprecedented access to information about how foster care issues have been handled by past administrations. The measure fizzled after passing the Senate, 31-4.

A measure originating in the House with a differing plan was struck from the legislative calendar after receiving committee approval.

Kelly said the child advocate, who is to be appointed by the governor and serve a five-year term, will investigate complaints, recommend structural changes to lawmakers and ensure interagency cooperation.

“The establishment of a child advocate is a commonsense win for Kansas kids and families,” Kelly said in signing the executive order. “For years, our state’s essential family services were neglected and underfunded – leaving our kids and families more vulnerable than ever before. Fixing those systemic problems has been a top priority for my administration, and the Division of the Child Advocate is a significant step forward to ensure every Kansas child is protected from harm.”

Among other duties of the division will be to compile complaints on behalf of those in the child welfare system, review practices of child welfare agents, and educate children and parents as to their rights within the system. Advocates said this action was needed to provide an outlet for potential abuse or neglect of Kansas children.

Kelly said the child advocate will work under the newly established Office of Public Advocates in the Department of Administration. The office will also hold the KanCare ombudsman and long-term care ombudsman.

The governor had previously proposed housing the office under the Department of Administration, but the idea did not gain traction over concerns of independent oversight. Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat and longtime advocate for the establishment of such an office, said he would have preferred to see the House model succeed but was glad Kelly acted if legislators would not.

“It’s going to reduce the kids in care, it’s going to reduce trauma and it’s going to extend placements,” Ousley said. “It’s going to benefit the kids.”

Over the past three months, the number of missing foster children has ranged from 60 to 82 on any given day. Currently, 64 children are unaccounted for.

Reports of neglect and extraordinary tragedies have accelerated the push for the Division of the Child Advocate. Jami Reever, executive director of the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, applauded the effort to provide true oversight and accountability for the state’s foster care system.

“All Kansas children deserve bright and hopeful futures, and we are thrilled to work in partnership with state leaders to continue to build a more thriving, inclusive and just state,” Reever said. “The Division of the Child Advocate is the transparent and truly independent watchdog our kids, families, social workers and communities need.”

Senate President Ty Masterson applauded the governor’s efforts and recognition of the issue, but he was skeptical this action would provide appropriate oversight.

“It is important that the office be independent and provide real oversight,” the Andover Republican said. “This past session, the Senate adopted (a bill) which created a true independent Office of Child Advocate that would bring accountability and transparency to the child welfare system in Kansas. This is the more appropriate course and one we will continue to pursue next session.”

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, reiterated arguments made by child welfare advocates during the session earlier this year that the Senate model was unworkable and far too partisan. She said the governor’s route offers a good compromise.

Sykes left the door open to further conversations in the Senate on how to pass this model into law via the Legislature. As it stands, the executive order could easily be reversed by a future governor.

“I hope we can actually see how (this model) is working before we get into session and it shows some success so that everyone can support it and so that if the future governor decides not to keep this that we do have protections for our children because they’re our best asset,” she said.

Kansas Reflector stories, www.kansasreflector.com, may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
See more at https://kansasreflector.com/2021/10/04/kelly-establishes-child-welfare-advocacy-division-skirts-legislative-disputes/.