Kansas governor more forceful against COVID vaccine mandates

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly grew more forceful Friday in opposing President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates, saying it’s “too late” in the coronavirus pandemic to impose them after Kansas and other states tailored responses to their needs.

Kelly’s latest statement came a day after she argued that federal mandates “tend not to work,” though they’ve boosted vaccination rates elsewhere. She faces a difficult race for reelection next year in her Republican-leaning state, and GOP officials have been attacking the Democratic president’s mandates for weeks and criticizing Kelly for not making any public comments until Thursday.

“While I appreciate the intention to keep people safe, a goal I share, I don’t believe this directive is the correct, or the most effective, solution for Kansas,” Kelly said in her latest statement.

Kelly’s statement Friday came shortly before Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who hopes to unseat Kelly next year, announced that Kansas is among seven states that filed a federal lawsuit with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati against a Biden mandate that applies to companies with more than 100 workers. Schmidt already had brought Kansas into a federal lawsuit against a mandate applying to employees of federal government contractors.

Kelly said Thursday that last year — when Donald Trump was president — states were left to fashion their own responses to the pandemic, though the federal government provided billions of dollars in aid.

“States have been leading the fight against COVID-19 from the start of the pandemic. It is too late to impose a federal standard now that we have already developed systems and strategies that are tailored for our specific needs,” she said in Friday’s statement.

For Republicans, Kelly’s statements smacked of political opportunism following the GOP’s strong showing in Tuesday’s elections, when they won the Virginia governor’s race and nearly ousted New Jersey’s Democratic governor. Schmidt’s campaign spokesman, C.J. Grover, labeled Kelly’s actions “a desperate political ploy.”

“It’s not surprising to see the governor backtrack on this issue,” Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said in an email to The Associated Press. “Nevertheless, we need every state leader engaged in fighting this gross federal overreach, and Republicans will welcome her participation.”

Kelly said in her latest statement that she will “seek a resolution” on vaccine mandates that “continues to recognize the uniqueness of our state and builds on our on-going efforts to combat a once-in-a-century crisis.” Her office declined to provide more details.

Some Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature have discussed making it easier for people to claim medical or religious exemptions from the mandates or guaranteeing that people who are fired for refusing to get vaccinated receive unemployment benefits. Kelly said Thursday that the state is considering unemployment benefits on a case-by-case basis.

Top Republican lawmakers are having a committee look into ways for Kansas to resist Biden’s mandates. It hopes to draft proposals before Thanksgiving, though outside of the federal lawsuits, it’s unclear what the state can do.

Meanwhile, Koch Industries, the international energy conglomerate based in Wichita, has told employees that it will not require vaccination as a “condition of employment,” opting instead to require weekly testing and masking for employees who are not vaccinated, spokeswoman Melissa Scheffler-Hoyle said in an statement. That’s allowed under the mandate for private employers.

Charles Koch, the company’s CEO, and his late fellow-billionaire brother David built a political network that supports conservative causes and candidates.

“We continue to strongly encourage employees who haven’t been vaccinated to do so, as it is the best way to avoid COVID-related serious illness and death,” the Koch Industries statement said.

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Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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