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Vaccine passports, other virus issues split Kansas lawmakers



TOPEKA, Kan. — Republican lawmakers in Kansas were split Friday over proposals to ban COVID-19 vaccine passports, limit efforts to track down close contacts of people with the coronavirus and compensate businesses that closed or faced restrictions early in the pandemic.

House and Senate negotiators slipped a ban on state agencies issuing vaccine passports and limits on COVID-19 contact tracing into budget legislation late Thursday night. But some conservative Republicans still wanted Friday to pass a separate bill with those policies because the budget provisions can’t be as expansive as they prefer and would remain in effect only through June 2022.

Legislators also were working on the final version of a bill to use up to $700 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to compensate businesses that were financially harmed by pandemic restrictions. The Senate passed a bill this week to set up a process in which businesses could file claims with the state and tap the funds instead of filing lawsuits.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature hoped lawmakers would wrap up their business for the year either late Friday or early Saturday. That left Republicans with different views on the various COVID-19 proposals scrambling to find time to hash out the details.

“I believe all three of those issues will be addressed,” said Senate Judiciary Chair Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican.

Democrats were wary of the proposal for compensating businesses. They also disliked how the Senate-passed bill would leave the awarding of funds to an appointed three-member board within the attorney general’s office that would have meetings closed to the public to protect businesses’ private information.

Both Democrats and some Republicans worried that a proposed ban on vaccine passports being circulated by GOP conservatives was too broad, applying to private businesses as well as state and local government agencies.

“This is no way to run a railroad,” said Democratic Sen. David Haley, of Kansas City. “They’re throwing everything up against a wall and seeing what sticks.”

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said last month that no vaccine passports would be issued by her administration. The provision included by House and Senate negotiators in budget legislation would prevent any state agency from spending any funds on issuing passports, requiring people to use them or denying people without them access “to a place accessible to the general public.”

But the ban wouldn’t apply to cities and counties and would expire in a little more than a year.

“We need something more solid,” said conservative Republican Sen. Mike Thompson, of Shawnee, adding that people “can’t keep their health status private” with vaccine passports.

But House Judiciary Chair Fred Patton, of Topeka, argued that the budget provisions on vaccine passports and contact tracing address lawmakers’ concerns.

“I think we’re finished with the vaccine passports and contact tracing,” Patton said.

The Legislature enacted the limits on COVID-19 contract tracing last year at the urging of Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who is running for governor. He saw them as a way to protect people’s privacy.

However, those limits expired Saturday. They prevented people with COVID-19 from being forced to disclose close contacts who may have been exposed to the virus and said people couldn’t face criminal charges or civil lawsuits for refusing.

The budget provision on contact tracing would allow the state Department of Health and Environment to spend money on tracing only if participation was voluntary and did not use cellphone location data.

Such limits would set COVID-19 apart from other infectious diseases, such as syphilis or hepatitis. Public health groups said the limits hinder contact tracing and decried the different rules for COVID-19.

Some Republicans said the special treatment was justified because the number of novel coronavirus cases made the threat to privacy much greater. The state health department reported Friday that Kansas has 310,582 confirmed or probable coronavirus cases during the pandemic, or one for every nine of its 2.9 million residents.