TOPEKA, Kan. — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s effort to expand Medicaid in Kansas this year fell apart Saturday when moderate Republicans bowed to the wishes of the GOP-controlled Legislature’s conservative leaders and ended an impasse that had tied up the state budget.
The House voted 79-45 in favor of an $18.4 billion spending blueprint for state government for the budget year beginning in July. Democrats and moderate Republicans had held the budget hostage for a day, hoping to force the Senate to vote on an expansion plan passed by the House and favored by Kelly. Republican leaders did not budge on putting off action until next year.
The budget was a good one for Kelly, fellow Democrats and moderate Republicans, providing extra money for higher education and pay raises for state employees, though her administration had problems with how it allocated extra dollars for prisons. Expansion supporters initially were willing to risk those gains to fulfill Kelly’s goal of expanding Medicaid health coverage to an additional 150,000 Kansas residents now.
“Medicaid expansion cannot wait another year,” said Rep. Brett Parker, a Kansas City-area Democrat. “We have waited too long.”
But Republican leaders spent much of Saturday in meetings with GOP moderates to get them to relent. During the budget vote, Democrats briefly played rocker Tom Petty’s song, “I Won’t Back Down” as GOP leaders held the roll open for more than 90 minutes to get the last necessary yes votes — and then nearly all Republicans jumped aboard.
“They’ve got a budget that they’re happy with, so how long are they going to play that game?” House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a conservative Wichita Republican, said before voting began. “It’s up to them.”
The budget bill went next to the Senate, where the expected favorable vote would send the measure to Kelly. The House budget vote also cleared the way for it to vote on a GOP tax bill designed to provide relief to individuals and businesses paying more in state income taxes because of changes in federal tax laws at the end of 2017.
Kelly’s election last year raised hopes that Kansas would join 36 other states that have expanded Medicaid or seen voters pass ballot initiatives. The House passed its Medicaid expansion bill in March, but it remains stuck in committee in the Senate.
Republicans leaders argue that the expansion plan Kelly backed would be more expensive for the state than her administration projected. They also contend that lawmakers need more time to get the details right and control health care costs.
The governor called their arguments a “stall tactic.”
As part of their efforts to bring just enough moderate House Republicans back into the fold, GOP leaders suggested that the impasse threatened the state’s position in a lawsuit over public education funding just as the state could be close to ending it.
Lawmakers approved an increase in public school funding last month, but the proposed $18.4 billion budget contains most of the $4 billion-plus in education funding for the 2019-20 school year.
The school funding increase is aimed at meeting a Kansas Supreme Court order last year in a lawsuit filed by four local school districts in 2010. The court plans to hear arguments from attorneys Thursday about whether the increase is enough, and top Republicans argue that the state’s position will be weak if a budget hasn’t passed.