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Topeka Capital – Journal – May 28

A panel of top legislators voted Friday to extend the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration until June 15 in an effort to give the Kansas National Guard and other agencies time to wind down any ongoing emergency operations.

But as part of the deal, members nixed an executive order from Gov. Laura Kelly banning evictions and foreclosures, which has been in existence off and on since spring of last year.

Under legislation signed into law in March, Kelly no longer has a formal role in the decision over extending the order, with those powers instead resting in a committee made up predominantly of Republican legislators. That panel, the Legislative Coordinating Council, also can review and reject any of the governor’s executive orders.

Members voted to approve the extension on a party-line-vote. It comes as a half-dozen states have or will soon end their emergency declarations, as COVID-19 cases slow nationally.

But while Kelly stressed the need for the broader emergency order to continue, her office slammed the decision to end the eviction and foreclosure moratorium.

“As we finally start to recover from this global pandemic, now is not the time to kick people out of their homes,” Reeves Oyster, a spokesperson for the governor, said in a statement. “Governor Kelly will continue to focus on doing what’s right — and not what’s politically convenient.”

Still, Republican legislators indicated they too were growing weary of the need for any pandemic-related orders.

“When is it going to stop?” House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said. “When are these extensions going to stop. We always can find a reason for an extension.”

That hasn’t stopped the Kelly administration, however, from making a case to legislators for the declaration’s renewal.

Adjutant General David Weishaar told legislators Wednesday that the declaration was still needed to support the state’s emergency operations center, which received about two dozen requests in May from local governments for first-aid supplies, gowns and masks.

He added the order also gave the Kansas National Guard authorization to pitch in with vaccine clinics and transporting testing samples.

And Weishaar warned the order’s demise could threaten federal disaster funding, although he noted guidance on this matter was hazy from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It doesn’t appear that other states who have ended their orders have lost any disaster aid.

But legislators were skeptical Friday that the order was really needed to continue current operations, including vaccine rollout.

“I think most of the things that are being done now can be done without a declaration in place,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa.

Democrats on the committee argued it was foolhardy to pretend that ending the declaration would mean the risk of the virus for Kansans would disappear, pointing to the fact that fewer than half of the state’s residents have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Yes, we need an exit strategy and I think we are on that path,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa. “But to say we don’t want this because we want it to be over? We will harm Kansans.”

The end of Kansans’ ban on evictions and foreclosures troubled advocates, especially given uncertainty about a similar moratorium at the federal level.

Republicans have long been skeptical of the state’s moratorium, arguing it prevents landlords from getting paid.

An evictions ban issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still in place, although it is hanging by a thread. It was struck down in a Washington, D.C., federal court but will remain in place pending appeal. It is set to expire on June 30.

Evictions have continued throughout the pandemic, sometimes in defiance of the ban.

And Dustin Hare, a Wyandotte County organizer, said the CDC ban was more effective than the state’s moratorium.

“I don’t think the state-level moratorium has really been effective,” he said. “The federal one was a lot stronger than the state-level. A lot of people I know have been filling out the declaration form through the CDC since the beginning.”

But if the CDC order isn’t renewed or remains mired in legal purgatory, Hare said things could get difficult for renters.

“If that goes away, I think we’re going to be in for a world of hurt,” Hare said.

Rental assistance programs do exist, both at a statewide level, as well as an aid fund targeted directly at Wichita residents. More money could be coming, with $50 billion approved in the American Rescue Plan to help renters.

But advocates have argued more needs to be done, particularly in modifying the program’s structure. The Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance program, for instance, pays landlords instead of sending those funds directly to tenants, something Rent Zero Kansas has opposed.

The KERA program, operated by the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation, has paid out over $1 million in aid, although this has only gone to 167 of the 4,038 applications submitted.

More individuals to process those applications, Hare said, as well as an improved outreach strategy would help ensure resources reach renters.

But Vince Munoz, an organizer with the housing advocacy group Rent Zero Kansas, said the most effective measure was still some sort of moratorium.

“It isn’t as effective as simply saying we aren’t going to have evictions,” Munoz said.

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