Kansas Gov. Kelly vetoes sweeping restrictions on power of public health officials

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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on Friday vetoed a bill that would have restricted the state’s health officials from mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for children in schools and daycares and prohibited the secretary of the Department of Health and Environment from adopting any measures to control infectious or contagious diseases.

“The field of public health was pioneered here in Kansas, yet lawmakers continue trying to undermine the advancements that have saved lives in every corner of our state,” Kelly said in a statement.

The bill narrowly passed in the Senate 22-18 and in the House 63-56. The Legislature, which adjourned last month, will not have the opportunity to override Kelly’s veto unless lawmakers return to Topeka for a special session within 10 days of the veto.

Kelly called the bill an effort by politicians to win short-term political points while threatening the long-term health and safety of residents and the state’s economy.

“There’s no question: Preventing Kansas’ local and state health officials from providing even basic testing for contagious human and zoonotic diseases — including measles, meningitis, Ebola, and polio — will hurt our ability to stop unnecessary outbreaks in the future,” Kelly said.

Kelly has vetoed a historic number of bills during the session and told reporters last month she would continue to veto bills she thought weren’t in the state’s best interest. Last year, she vetoed a bill with similar goals.

The bill is a reflection of some Republican lawmakers’ beliefs that health officials’ actions during the COVID-19 pandemic went too far, justifying the curtailment of health departments’ authority to mandate measures to fight infectious diseases such as quarantine or isolation.

“Nobody wants what happened before during COVID, where they felt the health department overstepped,” Sen. Beverly Gossage, a Eudora Republican who chairs the Senate Committee on Public Health and Welfare, told the Star last month.

The bill, which would have allowed the state’s public health officials to only issue recommendations to control the spread of a disease, received significant pushback from health officials including the Kansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments and KDHE.

Opponents were concerned that limiting the power of public health officials in future pandemics would prevent officials from taking quick and decisive action to control the spread of diseases.

Sen. Pat Pettey, a Kansas City Democrat and the ranking minority member on the health committee, acknowledged that while COVID-19 mitigation measures may not have always been “the best,” the intentions behind each measure were in the best interests of Kansans.

“I’m proud of the governor’s decision,” she said. “It’s very important for us to have a secretary and health department directors to have the authority to make decisions when there are health emergencies.”

Tracy Russell, the executive director of NutureKC, a pro-vaccine organization, said that though the veto by Kelly represents a huge win for the health of Kansans, the Legislature will likely continue to push similar legislation.

“It’s a slippery slope,” she said. “The opposition is emboldened every time they manage to get bills like these further. What they achieve each year is the floor they will continue to build off of.”

But supporters of the bill have continually argued that health care decisions, such as vaccines, should be left up to individual Kansans rather than governmental institutions.

“As we learn from past mistakes, this bill would put the appropriate checks and balances with elected officials who answer directly to Kansas voters and return unelected health bureaucrats back into their intended advisory role,” House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said in a statement.