Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly maneuvered to set a tone for the 2020 legislative session by locking arms with the Senate's Republican majority leader on a plan for Medicaid expansion.
The bipartisan coalition of House and Senate members drawn together by Kelly and Overland Park Sen. Jim Denning intend to thwart conservatives who want no part of broadening health services under Medicaid to as many as 150,000 low-income adults and children.
"We'll get it done," Kelly said. "I don't want to expand Medicaid just so we can say we expanded Medicaid. I want it to be expanded in a way that actually provides access for those 150,000 Kansans that is cost-effective as it possibly can be and is not an administrative nightmare."
Kelly made Medicaid reform a central element of her 2018 campaign for governor, and has declared it her top priority of the session. Denning, who faces an unusually difficult re-election campaign, said senators and representatives in Topeka should be intent on building health-reform compromises providing Kansans from all different backgrounds and situations sustained access to quality care.
Every legislative session offers opportunities for lawmakers, especially those with advanced political aspirations, to make themselves heard.
The annual session of the Legislature that starts at 2 p.m. Monday will feature protracted debate on abortion, taxes, criminal justice, education and budgeting. The session is expected to draw legislators into consideration of foster care, economic development, treatment of mental illness and addiction, gun violence, medicinal marijuana and sports betting. There will be surprises and, of course, numerous got-no-chance-of-passing bills will be in play.
Senate President Susan Wagle, who is campaigning to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in Washington, D.C., said she was eager to unite Republican legislators at the Capitol behind tax deductions for mortgage interest, health expenditures and property taxes, build support for lowering the state sales tax on groceries and to advance a constitutional amendment affirming restrictions on abortion.
She predicted Kelly and state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Democrat also seeking Roberts' seat in the U.S. Senate, would adhere to a perspective reminiscent of former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the Kansas Democrat who was a Cabinet secretary under President Barack Obama.
"I will work hard to keep our agenda in line with Kansans' values," Wagle said. "They will follow the liberal leanings of their party leaders and continue to oppose allowing Kansans to itemize their tax returns and refuse to lower food sales tax. They will advocate for the most extreme positions on abortion allowing the procedure up to birth, proving they are extremists in line with the new left."
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said the central focus of the Legislature ought to be Medicaid expansion and passage of reasonable tax reform. Across the Capitol rotunda, House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, of Wichita, said a primary objective should be placement on a statewide ballot in 2020 of an amendment to the Kansas Constitution reversing the abortion decision of the Kansas Supreme Court, which found the document provided a constitutional guarantee of a right to abortion in Kansas.
"The court opened the door to unrestricted late-term abortion up to the point of birth," Hawkins said. "There is no higher priority for the Legislature than addressing this injustice."
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said the quest of Statehouse politicians needs to be passage of policy beneficial to their constituents rather than individual career advancement.
"I'm hopeful that, even in an election year, that we can all work together to help Kansans," said Sawyer, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1998. "The governor wants to work with Republicans to restore our state and continue digging Kansas out of the hole left by Brownback, to expand Medicaid, and to pass legislation that benefits the people of our state. I'd like to see a united legislative front in 2020 with everyone working together to solve issues for the people of Kansas.“
Of course, Sawyer is keen to gain seats in the Kansas House for Democrats. Loss of a single seat by Republicans in November would break the House GOP's two-thirds majority -- a key measure of partisan dominance. House Democrats raised a record-breaking $130,000 in 2019. It was the first time the minority party in the House surpassed the $100,000 threshold in a non-election year in more than two decades.
Rep. Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from Dighton who served as House majority leader from 2017 to 2019, said it would be impossible to expunge electoral politics from legislative sessions. He said a reasonable goal was to bring Republicans and Democrats together on an issue-by-issue basis, such as Medicaid expansion.
"This is an election year," he said. "There's going to be interplay."