Gov. Laura Kelly devoted the three-week holiday for the Kansas Legislature into a town-hall tour drawing about 15,000 people to emphasize her desire for action on Medicaid expansion and to amplify opposition to new layers of abortion regulation and a fresh round of tax cuts sought by Republicans.
The Democratic governor's decisions on these issues were criticized during the interim by GOP leaders of the House and Senate who offer a maybe-next-year strategy on broadening eligibility for Medicaid to 130,000 people and a right-now appeal to slashing taxes and restraining abortion.
However, Kelly said, the public has been able to observe a shift in governing by the executive branch.
"People really sense we have changed the tone in Kansas and people are responding. We're incredibly open here," Kelly said in an interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal. "The other thing that has been really well-received has been our appointments to the Cabinet."
State legislators return Wednesday to the Capitol for the wrap-up portion of Kansas' annual session. It's typically devoted to completion of the new state budget, packaging compromise bills and handling gubernatorial vetoes.
On Wednesday, the Senate will take up a motion by Democratic Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, urging the Senate to pull out of committee the Medicaid expansion bill passed in March by the House. Senate President Susan Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, both Republicans, have relied upon procedural and technical obstacles to inhibit Senate action on the bill during the 2019 session.
"Kansas has forgone more than $3 billion that would’ve come to our state had we expanded Medicaid in 2014," Hensley said. "The Kansas Hospital Association estimates for each day of delay on Medicaid expansion, the state loses slightly more than $2 million."
Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act requiring the federal government to cover 90 percent expansion costs.
Denning, the Overland Park Republican serving as Senate majority leader, said Republicans preferred to develop a Medicaid reform bill in conjunction with the 2020 legislative session. That planning won't necessarily include House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, who referred to expansion bills to a junk car, "You can paint it up and give it that new car scent, but it will never run right."
"No state that's expanded has given a second thought to pulling it back," said Kelly, who expressed frustration with arguments by opponents of Medicaid reform. "They express so much concern that Medicaid expansion 'will torpedo our budget,' but that doesn't stop them from voting for a tax cut that obviously will torpedo our budget."
Kelly met recently with four House and Senate members in an attempt to negotiate a Medicaid bill, but those talks failed to break the gridlock.
Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she was pleased Kelly decided not to veto House Bill 2209. The law allows Kansas Farm Bureau to market policies, not technically insurance, that would deliver a more low-cost path for the organization's members to pay health care costs.
"Americans have seen health care costs explode while options dwindle," Wagle said. "We desperately need to help Kansans struggling to afford coverage find new, affordable options."
A decision Friday by the Kansas Supreme Court finding a right to abortion in the Kansas Constitution likely stoked interest in overriding Kelly's veto of a bill mandating women seeking a pill-induced abortion be told the process might be halted with a different drug.
"I just have always opposed elected officials practicing medicine when they're not licensed to do so," said Kelly, who also welcomed the court decision.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, characterized Kelly’s abortion veto as disappointing and the Supreme Court's decision on abortion as alarming. The House "stands ready to consider a veto override" on the abortion notification bill, he said. The Legislature ought to work on an amendment to the state constitution to nullify the Supreme Court's view of abortion rights, he said.
The House and Senate could develop an alternative to the vetoed tax measure that would have cut state revenue by $500 million over three years from multinational corporations, an assortment of financial businesses and the 15 percent or so of Kansans who itemize on state income taxes.
The bill was justified by supporters who argued lack of action by Kansas officials would negate federal tax changes of great benefit to some Kansas businesses and individuals. The measure also would have cut food sales taxes and expanded sales tax for online purchases.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said legislators ought to consider a narrow tax bill granting individual filers the ability to itemize deductions on state returns while taking the new larger standard deduction on federal returns.
In terms of the budget, Kelly said the tentative blueprint crafted by legislative negotiators would spend money more quickly than she preferred, but "not in such a way that makes the budget unworkable." She praised "as a really good step" sections of the budget allowing for hiring of 42 new social workers and drawing down federal funding to enable greater investment in prevention programs for children at risk of entering foster care.
There is a chance gambling lobbyists and state regulators could arrive at a compromise package to advance legal sports betting in Kansas before the Legislature adjourned.
In the 100 days since the session started in January, bipartisan agreement was found on a $90 million increase in state aid to K-12 education. The money would supplement a $525 million, five-year commitment approved by the 2018 Legislature and Gov. Jeff Colyer.
Last year's upgrade was accepted by the Supreme Court, but justices said an additional amount was needed to address years of inflationary costs absorbed by school districts.
The Supreme Court scheduled oral argument May 9 on the new education law. In addition, justices agreed to host argument that day on the dispute among Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kelly and Wagle about authority to make the next nomination to the Kansas Court of Appeals.
During Kelly's tenure as governor, she also signed a bill making a skipped payment of $115 million to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. She issued an executive order reinstating job protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender state employees.
Kelly said she felt good about Cabinet secretaries in the administration, despite controversy about her pick to run the Kansas Department of Commerce.
"My team has increased transparency and accountability in our government and restored responsible, commonsense leadership that addresses the priorities of Kansas families," she said.