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Session Recap: Kansas Democrats Wield New Power, But GOP Leaders Thwart Medicaid Expansion

Republican Majority Leader Rep. Dan Hawkins (left) and Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman worked the phones to secure enough votes to end a standoff over Medicaid expansion and pass the budget to end the legislative session. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)

In the waning days of the 2019 session, the conservative Republicans controlling the Kansas Legislature made one thing clear to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and her allies: They were ready for a fight against Medicaid expansion.  

The issue commanded the four-month session, which ended in the wee hours Sunday. The session was the first with the new Democratic governor in office, which gave people who wanted to expand health coverage for thousands of low-income Kansans the energy to push hard in the final days. Their efforts ultimately failed.

“Medicaid expansion has characterized this entire session,” Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Bishop said during a final budget vote. “It has run up against the will of the minority to thwart the will of the majority.”

Conservative leaders in the House convinced enough Republican moderates to fold to break a logjam over expansion and approve a budget that boosts funding for roads, prisons, and education.

“Our ultimate goal was to make sure that we funded core government and that our schools were funded,” Republican House Speaker Ron Ryckman said.

Everyone involved agreed this wasn’t the last word on Medicaid expansion. House Democratic Leader Tom Sawyer said “we gave it our best fight, and we’re going to keep fighting.” Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, who refused to debate it this year, promised to prepare a “much more robust” bill before the 2020 legislative session starts in January.

But that’s all in the future.

While Medicaid expansion stalled, other initiatives advanced and faltered in 2019.
 

What lawmakers did
 

Increased school funding, yet again.

Lawmakers handed Gov. Laura Kelly a victory by approving her K-12 education proposal with a bipartisan majority.

Kelly based her plan on calculations from the Kansas Department of Education, adding about $90 million per year to account for inflation. The Kansas Supreme Court must sign off; if they do, it will end a long-running lawsuit over education spending.

But the plaintiffs in the Gannon case say the state got the math wrong, and that the Legislature will have to put in more still to make school funding adequate. Oral arguments are on May 9.

Gave businesses and itemizers a tax break.

In late March, Kelly quashed tax-relief legislation that was crafted in response to changes at the federal level. Lawmakers successfully tried again at the end of the session, passing a more modest bill.

It will save Kansas residents used to itemizing from paying more in state taxes after changes to the federal tax code. And it will exempt corporations’ overseas income from state taxes.

That’s if the governor doesn’t veto this bill too. She’s called the measure hasty and wants to instead study the Kansas tax code over the coming year.

Lawmakers tried to make it more palatable by including provisions to cut the sales tax on food, which Kansas taxes more than almost any other state. Kansas would collect sales taxes from more online retailers to make up for it.

Let the state Farm Bureau market health coverage.

Citing the rising cost of health care, the Kansas Farm Bureau lobbied lawmakers to market coverage exempt from state insurance regulations and the rules put in place by the federal Affordable Care Act.

Critics said the group shouldn’t be allowed to sidestep insurance regulations, especially when it comes to guaranteeing coverage for pre-existing conditions. But the farm bureau argued the flexibility will create new, cheaper health plans that their members could afford.

The governor expressed reservations, but let the bill become law without her signature, in part to encourage a compromise on Medicaid expansion.

Approved more money for prisons, with a twist.

Kelly offered a last-minute budget amendment to boost corrections spending by about $30 million. The administration is hoping that raising officers’ pay and moving some inmates to county jails and private prisons will ease the pressure on the state prison system.

Lawmakers ultimately included more than $25 million, but there’s a catch: the money’s being routed through the state Finance Council. It’s made up of the governor and leaders of both parties, who all will decide on actually doling out the funding.

Took baby steps toward fixing the child welfare system.

The across-the-board consensus to start off the session was that children dying on the state’s watch and kids sleeping in offices of overwhelmed foster care contractors constituted an emergency.

Lawmakers agreed to add staff for the Department for Children and Families to lighten the load, including more child abuse investigators. They also agreed to funding programs that will allow the state to get federal money to help struggling families stay together.

But most recommendations of the state’s child welfare system task force remained on the shelf, things like improving foster home recruitment and strengthening safety-net programs like Medicaid. And lawmakers cut support for child welfare oversight from the final budget.

Restored funding for state colleges and universities.

Kelly wanted $8.9 million to fully restore what lawmakers had cut during the state’s lean financial years.

Lawmakers agreed and added more, boosting spending on colleges and universities by almost $16 million, plus about $4 million in additional funding targeted at specific programs, including a technical education initiative.

Overall, it’s still less than the $50 million the Board of Regents had requested, but the regents said they were thankful for what they got.

Got some highway projects rolling again.

Lawmakers routed extra money to speed up projects in the 10-year transportation plan, T-WORKS, that had been delayed due to the post-2012 tax-cut budget crunch.

A task force recommended finishing the delayed highway projects, and lawmakers agreed to pursue that before working a on a new long-term transportation plan.

Made it easier to vote, and get your ballot counted.

One provision in a package of updates to voting rules will allow counties to let voters go to any polling place on Election Day. But it’ll be up to those local election officials whether to make open polling available.

Another piece of the legislation allows voters to fix problems with the signature on their mail-in ballot. In some cases, ballots have been thrown out because county officials said the signature didn’t closely match an example on file. The new law will require county officials to try to contact voters and let them correct their ballot before all the votes are tallied.

The Legislature did not, however, revoke the Kansas secretary of state’s authority to prosecute election crimes. The move had broad support, and the endorsement of current Secretary of State Scott Schwab, but lawmakers ran out of time.

Allowed medical use of CBD oil containing some THC.

THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana still isn’t legal in Kansas. But lawmakers made allowances for having CBD oil with THC in it for medicinal purposes.

Patients and caregivers who have a doctor’s note will be protected against prosecution and child welfare proceedings. Republican Rep. Eric Smith, a sheriff’s deputy, said such a letter won’t necessarily protect against being arrested for possessing CBD oil containing THC.
 

What lawmakers did not do
 

Amend the state constitution to ban abortion.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled last month that the state constitution guarantees a right to abortion. Abortion opponents say that could knock down many of the restrictions that have been added to state law in recent years. 

The court's long-awaited decision amplified calls for a constitutional amendment, which would need two-thirds support in the Legislature to get on the ballot for a public vote. Abortion opponents are waiting until 2020 to make their push for that.

Legalize sports betting.

It has bipartisan support, but legalizing betting on sports turned out not to be a slam dunk. While eight states already have done it and two others look to be in line, Kansas lawmakers got hung up on who should run gambling, how much to tax betting and other nitty-gritty details. The issue will likely come back in the 2020 session.

Refinance the state pension program.

Kelly wanted to stretch out repayment of state pension debt to free up money for other priorities, like highways and Medicaid expansion. But the proposed refinancing might have increased overall costs by $7 billion. Lawmakers scoffed and chose not to pursue it. Still, the reamortization idea could rerturn in the coming years.

Expand Medicaid.

Democrats and moderate Republicans maneuvered to get Medicaid expansion passed in the House in March. With the goal of inducing a debate on expansion in the Senate, the coalition blocked the budget twice as the session wound down.

Despite the bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate, and popular support, Republican leaders held off the last-ditch efforts.

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