Kansas lawmakers who support expanding Medicaid promised Friday to try to block passage of the next state budget in a high-stakes standoff designed to force the Legislature’s conservative Republican leaders to allow an expansion plan backed by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
Kelly’s election last year raised hopes that Kansas would join 36 other states that have expanded Medicaid or seen voters pass ballot initiatives. But, like North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, two other Democrats pushing to expand Medicaid, she faces a GOP-controlled Legislature.
The Kansas House planned to vote Friday on an $18 billion-plus spending blueprint for the budget year that begins in July. House and Senate negotiators hashed out details Thursday night that were favorable for Kelly, fellow Democrats and moderate Republicans, with extra money for higher education, the prison system and state employee pay raises.
The Senate has yet to debate a Medicaid expansion bill approved by the House in March, and top Republicans want to postpone a vote until next year, arguing that they need more time to get the details right. Kelly has called it a “stall tactic” and is pushing lawmakers to go ahead and expand Medicaid health coverage to as many as 150,000 more people this year.
Top Republicans wanted lawmakers to wrap up business for the year Friday after passing a bill providing relief to individuals and businesses paying higher state income taxes because of changes in federal tax laws at the end of 2017, a smaller plan than one Kelly vetoed in March. The Senate approved it Thursday night, and supporters needed only a favorable House vote to send it to Kelly.
But lawmakers aren’t finished until they pass a budget because state government can’t operate past June without one. That created an opportunity for expansion supporters if they can hold up the spending blueprint.
“That’s the plan right now,” said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat. “Right now, it looks like it’s holding pretty firm.”
Expansion advocates have been frustrated by their inability to get a bill out of committee in the Senate. The measure has bipartisan support in both chambers, but GOP conservatives who oppose it hold key leadership jobs. Top Republicans argue that an expansion plan is likely to prove more costly to the state than Kelly’s administration projects and want to consider alternatives, including work requirements.
About 15 expansion supporters dropped several thousand leaflets in the Statehouse rotunda Friday morning, each depicting a past-due hospital bill spattered with blood. The leaflets said hundreds of Kansas residents will die needlessly each year without expansion and each had the picture of a GOP senator on one side.
“When there’s extreme behavior coming out of the Senate leadership, that requires us to try to force their hand,” said Logan Stenseng, a 20-year-old University of Kansas public administration student who participated in the brief protest.
The protest didn’t move prominent Medicaid expansion opponents. Senate health committee Chairman Gene Suellentrop, a conservative Wichita Republican, noted that a leaflet with his photo contained another senator’s quote on the other side and he said the mismatch suggest the protesters “probably know very little about Medicaid expansion.”
“They need to go back to college,” Suellentrop said.
Advocates have pushed for Medicaid expansion in Kansas since 2012 and passed a bill in 2017, only to see it vetoed by then-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. Democrats in North Carolina are hoping to include expansion in their state’s budget but facing resistance from GOP legislative majorities are suggesting a veto by Cooper is ahead, with potentially protracted negotiations to follow.
Blocking Kansas’ next budget held risks for Democrats and moderate Republicans. If the spending plan failed, budget negotiators could reopen talks and rethink an extra $35 million for the prison system, $33 million for higher education or 2.5 percent pay raise for state employees included in it.
“I would say they don’t get a better budget than this,” said Rep. Kyle Hoffman, a conservative Coldwater Republican. “If we go back, things start getting stripped out.”
Associated Press writers Gary Robertson in Raleigh, N.C, and Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, also contributed.