Kansas lawmakers OK coronavirus responses, work on spending

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators wrapped up work Tuesday on three measures responding to the coronavirus pandemic and tried to resolve differences over the next state budget and a plan for funding transportation projects.

Lawmakers approved a bill that would give jobless workers an additional 10 weeks of unemployment benefits and another measure aimed at making it easier for the state to waive its requirements for how many hours of in-person instruction public schools must provide.

They also passed a bill that would allow the courts to extend trial deadlines and grant people more time to file lawsuits if they have to shut down temporarily because of the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. The three coronavirus-related measures went to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who is expected to sign them.

The Senate expected to take a vote Wednesday on a House-passed resolution to extend a state of emergency declared by Kelly last week into January 2021.

“We’re in extraordinary times where we’re considering some bills and actions without a lot of long debate, without a lot of testimony,” said Rep. Charlotte Esau, an Olathe Republican.

The vast majority of people infected with the coronavirus recover and for most, it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as a fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The Republican-controlled Legislature is rushing to finish important business early so that they can take a longer-than-usual spring break after Kelly closed all K-12 schools for the rest of the spring semester and banned public gatherings of 50 or more people through April. Lawmakers want to make sure state government can keep operating after June and believe transportation projects will boost an economy that’s deteriorating because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kansas has had one COVID-19 related death and at least 18 confirmed coronavirus cases, including two involving out-of-state residents.

The Senate also approved, 27-11, a proposed budget of nearly $20 billion for the fiscal year beginning in July. Lawmakers began meeting Tuesday evening to hash out the details of a plan to fund $1 billion worth of highway, road, bridge and other transportation projects for each of the next 10 years.

Legislators had been set to meet through April 3, then break until April 27. Leaders want to finish work this week on a budget bill, a transportation plan and the package of coronavirus measures.

Kansas is in relatively good financial shape. Its tax collections have exceeded expectations 32 of the past 33 months, and the unemployment rate has been below 4% for more than three years. It has nearly $1 billion in the fund that pays unemployment benefits.

But legislators and other state officials expect job losses because of the coronavirus pandemic coming on top of layoffs in the aviation industry.

The state currently limits unemployment benefits, which average $380 a week, to 16 weeks and makes recipients wait a week to receive their first check. The relief bill would eliminate the waiting week and provide 26 weeks of benefits to people who’ve filed for benefits since Jan. 1, until April 1, 2021.

The House passed the measure, 119-0, only hours after its commerce committee approved it. The vote in the Senate was 29-4.

“We find ourselves in uncharted waters, and no one knows how bad it’s going to get or how long it’s going to last,” said Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican and the committee’s chairman.

The votes were 117-2 in the House and 30-4 in the Senate on a bill making it easier for the State Department of Education to waive a requirement that schools provide 186 days of in-person instructions to most students.

The bill giving courts more flexibility cleared the Senate on a 27-7 vote after the House approved it Monday, 113-5.