TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican legislators in Kansas are trying to prohibit state and local mask mandates during disease outbreaks, advancing such a ban Wednesday along with proposals aimed at discouraging local restrictions on businesses and public gatherings.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure that would limit the power of state and local health officials during pandemics and strip them of their power to mandate wearing masks. It approved a separate measure to require cities and counties to cut businesses’ property taxes for each day they are forced to close or limit their operations. Both measures go next to the full Senate for debate.

GOP lawmakers criticized Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly persistently over steps she took to contain the spread of COVID-19, especially early in the pandemic when she ordered school buildings and businesses closed. The Republican-controlled Legislature forced her to accept a lessening of the governor’s power over time but later focused on limiting the power of cities, counties and local school boards to impose restrictions.

 

Many Republicans championed allowing local officials to impose mask mandates or limit businesses and public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic’s first year. But Republicans who’ve always opposed such rules have grown in influence as conservative operatives have increasingly seen restrictions as an issue to turn against Democrats in this year’s mid-term elections.

“I think that we tend to agree that we can see in hindsight now things — decisions were made that either we hung on too long or they were definitely an overreach,” said state Sen. Mike Thompson, a conservative Shawnee Republican and a vocal critic of restrictions.

Thompson argued that Kansas officials did not give enough thought early in the coronavirus pandemic to how restrictions would damage the economy. In pressing to outlaw future mask mandates, he also suggested that forcing children to wear masks in schools hindered their development and, “Masks really didn’t work.”

In fact, recent studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show such assertions aren’t borne out by evidence.

“We have committee members who are making decisions based off complete misinformation,” said Democratic state Sen. Ethan Corson, of Fairway.

The Legislature’s debate on public health policy also has shadowed Kelly’s attempt to keep her administration’s top public health official in place.

 

Some conservatives were opposing Janet Stanek’s appointment as head of the state Department of Health and Environment to show their displeasure with how the agency has handled COVID-19 in the past. Kelly appointed Stanek to the job in November, and if the Senate voted against confirming her, she’d have to step down.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s bill banning mask mandates also would allow parents to claim a religious exemption from longstanding requirements to vaccinate children against diseases such as measles and whooping cough to enroll them in school or day care without being questioned. Schools also would be barred from separating vaccinated and non-vaccinated children.

The measure would permit only local boards of education to close schools when faced with an infectious disease outbreak, and only for 30 days at a time. State and local officials would not be allowed to place any limits on houses of worship.

Individuals filing a lawsuit over restrictions would have to have hearing within three days and a ruling “without reasonable delay” and would have their legal fees covered if they won.

“I think it’s a really dangerous bill,” Corson said. ”We are so focused on Monday morning quarterbacking what happened with COVID that we are really tying our hands in being able to respond to future health events.”