The legislative session may have been abruptly cut short due to COVID-19 in late March, but elected officials returned to Topeka on Thursday, May 21, for one day only, to wrap up the session for 2020.
Senator Mary Jo Taylor of District 33 said the House and Senate held committee meetings before the session reconvened May 21 to narrow down and discuss the issues that will be the biggest priorities at this time. Legislators could join online to listen to the meetings.
Taylor said that legislators went to Topeka to meet in-person on May 21 rather than video conference from a distance, as per specific stipulations outlined by the statute on the matter.
The legislative schedule continued business as usual earlier this year, but as COVID-19 started its spread across the globe and reached Kansas, various businesses started to close and the political situation changed.
“Things started happening---kind of like, you know---a tipping point had been reached, and the dominoes started to fall,” Taylor said. “I think the most extreme one was when it was decided that schools would need to shut down for the rest of the school year.”
The legislative session came to a close around the same time, but not before the legislature passed a budget.
“Luckily, both the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee--the ones that are in charge of the budget--they had things pretty well ready to go so we could deliberate and talk about the budget,” Taylor said. “Both chambers passed out a budget before we left.”
Taylor said passing a budget was the primary goal as worries increased over COVID-19 and whether or not the legislative session would need to close early.
“After that was accomplished, then we did go home with the understanding that we may or may not be called back,” Taylor said. “We had performed our essential function, and so, all this time, we’ve just been not knowing--until recently--we’ve not been knowing if we were going to go back at all.”
The legislative session was cut short but the work continued for many departments that still had programs to manage.
The Department for Children and Families announced the new Kansas Hero Relief Program on April 18 and rolled the program out on April 20 to provide financial support for those who fall under the qualifying categories: Health care workers, first responders, food and agriculture workers, judicial branch, National Guard, child care providers, and frontline child and adult protection.
According to the KSHeroRelief.com website, “Eligibility is limited to families who have countable income at or below 250% of federal poverty guidelines, or a monthly income of up to $5,458 for a family of four.”
The website lists several available grants, stipends, and subsidies as well as links to apply for them.
“I do want to stress that it’s really for two different categories of people,” Taylor said. “It’s to help the first responders find adequate daycare for their children, but the second part of Hero [Relief Program], in my reading of it, is to provide support, financial grants, or stipends for the actual daycare providers, or for the actual childcare providers.”
Taylor said these workers are ‘absolutely essential’ and she is glad there are grants and stipends available to provide support. As for the duration of time the program will continue, she said she anticipates it will run until funds have been expended.
In addition, there is another new program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance through the Kansas Department of Labor, which expands access to unemployment for those who traditionally do not meet the requirements for unemployment.
According to the www.pua.getkansasbenefits.gov website, this program includes people who are self-employed, independent contractors, “gig” workers such as Uber or Lyft drivers, and other workers impacted by the COVID-19 crisis who have not been eligible for unemployment in the past.
With stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns around the United States, many Kansans anxiously await the reopening of the economy as it moves forward through phases of lessened restrictions.
Senator Taylor said she believes the reopening of the state has been going as ‘well as can be expected,’ though the situation varies across the state.
“As I’ve talked to constituents or they’ve communicated with me via email and phone messages, I think people in the 33rd District are anxious to get the economy going as soon as possible,” Taylor said.
Representing ten whole counties as well as parts of two others, Taylor said coronavirus has certainly impacted people in different ways, but her district has been somewhat fortunate in that it is not as highly-populated as other districts, making it a little easier to operate in a safe way.
“I represent, I think, the people who have been fortunate, and I think they are ready to go to the next step,” Taylor said. “So, if that’s what my constituents want, then of course, you know, I will do my best for that---not forgoing safety though---because then all of our efforts, and all of this economic upheaval will have been for not.”
With the gradual reopening of the state in phases, Taylor said the future remains uncertain as to whether or not the coronavirus cases will increase.
“Once people start traveling, you know, will we have more incidents in our rural counties? It’s possible,” Taylor said. “We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible.”