TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on Tuesday brushed aside complaints from fellow Democrats about signing a Republican measure aimed at financially protecting workers who refuse to get COVID-19 vaccines by declaring, “leadership means seeking compromise.”
Kelly acted with unusual speed, signing the bill the afternoon after its passage by the GOP-controlled Legislature just before midnight Monday during a one-day special session. Kansas is making it easy for workers to claim religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine requirements and promising unemployment benefits to people who are fired after refusing the shots.
Most Democratic lawmakers opposed the measure, and Kelly angered some of them with her pledge to sign it in response to federal mandates from President Joe Biden. She signed the bill in private after ignoring questions from reporters during a Tuesday morning holiday event at the governor's official residence.
“I know there are Kansans who believe this legislation goes too far, and there are others who believe this legislation doesn’t go far enough. But I was elected to lead, and leadership means seeking compromise,” Kelly said in a statement. “This bill is the result of compromise in action.”
Republican lawmakers passed the measure after forcing Kelly to call the Legislature into a special session when it had adjourned in May and wasn’t set to reconvene until January. The votes Monday night were 24-11 in the Senate and 77-34 in the House.
“It is well past the time that we do something,” said Sen. Alicia Straub, an Ellinwood Republican. “The people are begging of us to do something.”
Across the U.S., Republican governors, state attorneys general and lawmakers pursued ways to resist the Biden mandates, and Iowa enacted a law last month extending unemployment benefits to workers who refuse to get vaccinated. Provisions in the Kansas legislation were inspired by measures enacted last week in Florida — with some Republicans even calling it the “DeSantis language,” after Florida's GOP governor.
Kansas is enacting the new law with new COVID-19 cases on the rise. Kansas averaged 1,201 new cases, 26 additional hospitalizations and four additional deaths a day for the seven days ending Monday, according to state health department data. The federal government reported that 54.3% of its population was fully vaccinated, compared with the national figure of 59.2%.
Many Democrats saw the bill as a largely symbolic measure that offers little real protection to workers who want to resist vaccine mandates.
They said federal lawsuits against Biden's mandates will determine whether the requirements stand, and if they do, state laws will be void.
“We’re hoodwinking the public if they think this means anything,” said Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat.
Some Democrats also were upset that top Republicans told GOP lawmakers ahead of the Legislature’s final votes that Kelly was expected to sign the measure — before Democrats heard from her or her office.
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, called the bill “a bad bargain,” and Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, suggested the measure showed that apparently “people don’t avoid the plague anymore.”
Kelly faces a difficult reelection campaign next year, and her presumed Republican opponent, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, has brought Kansas into three multi-state lawsuits. Schmidt called the measure “a welcome companion to our ongoing legal efforts.”
In explaining Kelly's decision, her statement repeated an argument she made when she first publicly opposed Biden's mandates earlier this month that it's too late in the pandemic for such actions.
Spokesperson Reeves Oyster added: "Gov. Kelly has prioritized the safety of Kansans along with the well-being of our workforce and economy since day one.”
Republican lawmakers also said they were trying to protect the economy by preventing workers from losing their jobs. But Sen. Mike Thompson, a conservative Republican from the Kansas City suburb of Shawnee, called the measure's passage “a victory for liberty.”
Supporters argued that the new Kansas law will stand because it doesn't conflict with Biden’s mandates, which allow for religious exemptions.
But some business owners and the Kansas Chamber were skeptical. They worried that businesses would be caught between conflicting state and federal mandates.
“You’re going to make a wrong decision, no matter what,” said Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney who represents companies in employment law cases.
The Kansas Chamber argued that neither the state nor the federal government should impose mandates. It also objected to provisions in the bill that impose fines of up to $50,000 per violation when employers don’t grant a religious exemption to workers who ask for them.
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