Jan 22, 2021 7:00 PM

Kan. House rejects COVID-19 precautions for lawmakers

Posted Jan 22, 2021 7:00 PM
Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, addresses colleagues without his jacket Thursday to make a point about rules that maintain a dress code but don't include a mask mandate. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)
Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, addresses colleagues without his jacket Thursday to make a point about rules that maintain a dress code but don't include a mask mandate. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

By SHERMAN SMITH
Kansas Reflector

TOPEKA — Rep. Boog Highberger took his jacket off before addressing colleagues Thursday on the House floor.

“Don’t we have any rules around here?” he asked.

The Lawrence Democrat was trying to make a point with his flagrant violation of House decorum.

“You know how shocked you were when I just took my jacket off here at the podium? You know, even though there’s no scientific evidence that wearing a jacket helps prevent the spread of COVID-19? Shouldn’t you be more shocked when people are up here without a mask on?” Highberger said.

House Republicans resisted attempts by Democrats to impose a mask mandate on representatives or require them to quarantine following a positive test for COVID-19. Both parties overwhelmingly rejected an attempt by Wellington Republican Rep. Bill Rhiley to abolish the new socially distanced seating arrangements.

Rhiley and a small contingent of mask-averse Republicans are confined to gallery seating above the House floor, an area reserved for public observation in pre-pandemic times.

“This level is a hotter level and we don’t have air conditioning up here,” Rhiley complained. “The seats are short. The stairway is hard to manipulate, especially for our folks up here that have a hard time getting up and down.”

Rhiley’s proposal to return the 125-member body to the confines of the House floor failed on a 105-9 vote.

The House also approved legislation to extend the state’s disaster declaration for COVID-19 from next week until the end of March. The Senate already has passed the bill, which includes modest revisions from the compromise worked out during a special session in June, and now heads to Gov. Laura Kelly’s desk.

Discussion about COVID-19 safety protocols came up during a debate about the chamber’s self-imposed rules for how representatives operate in committees and within the chamber.

Among the changes from last year: Bills introduced in the House will now be required to include as part of the bill text the names of individuals or organizations that ask for the legislation. Additionally, if the entirety of a bill is amended with the text of another bill — a controversial common practice known as a gut-and-go — the text of the new bill will have to specify the origin of changes.

“If a bill is gutted,” said Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, “the rule will also now require that information is listed on the physical bill itself so you can go back and try to figure out — either now or five years from now, you can look back at the bill and see how it ended up where it ended up.”

Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, proposes an amendment Thursday that would require representatives to wear a mask in committees and the chamber. The proposal failed on a 75-46 vote. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)
Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, proposes an amendment Thursday that would require representatives to wear a mask in committees and the chamber. The proposal failed on a 75-46 vote. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, proposed amending the rules to require representatives to cover face and nose with a mask during committee hearings and in the House chamber, except when speaking into a microphone.

The issue is personal, Parker said. His father, a staunch Republican who also his biggest supporter, has struggled with memory loss in recent years. When the pandemic hit, the representative quarantined for two weeks so that he could safely visit his parents.

“Social isolation makes the experience of Alzheimer’s even more challenging for my dad — in fact, depressing,” Parker said. “It makes the burden on my mother even worse. Since last March, I’ve limited my indoor in-person interactions to my immediate family so that I can help my mother, so I can cook some meals or bring over carryout or just enjoy the last remaining activity that can keep my dad’s attention for more than an hour, which is watching Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.”

Now, Parker said, after months of carefully limiting his exposure, he faces the agonizing choice of not seeing his parents for months or putting them at high risk of catching a deadly virus.

“My story is not unique,” Parker said. “Everyone here, whether legislator or staff, has someone close to them who is at risk. We all care about the communities that we will return to and I offer this amendment not for myself but for all of us.”

The amendment failed by a 75-46 vote. Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit, Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison, Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, Rep. Mark Samsel, R-Wellsville, Rep. Mark Schreiber, R-Emporia, and Rep. Chuck Smith, R-Pittsburg, joined Democrats in supporting the mask mandate.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, proposed a change in rules that would require any representative who has a laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19 to report the test result to the speaker of the House and to isolate in accordance with local, state and federal health authorities.

Sherman Smith has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature.