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President's Perspective – Another Unfortunate Hurdle for Medicaid Expansion

HouseChamber (Feb. 14, 2020) – Last week, the 2020 session of the Kansas Legislature hit a major snag. This week, I wanted to reflect on what happened, how Medicaid expansion got drawn into the fray and what it says about the prospects for adoption of this important issue this session.

First, let's look at what actually happened. In response to a Kansas Supreme Court decision last year, a state constitutional amendment was introduced declaring that the Kansas State Constitution does not include the right to an abortion. From a substantive point of view, supporters say it will guarantee lawmakers the ability to regulate abortion, while opponents contend it would allow the legislature to completely ban the procedure if superseding federal rights ever end.

But the process involved here also is important. The amendment is currently written to be placed on the August primary ballot. Many supporters of the amendment want this because they say voters can then focus more on this particular issue. Numerous other legislators objected, saying they could support an amendment if it was placed on the November general election ballot, when the largest number of Kansans possible would vote on it. In the end, the constitutional amendment fell 4 votes short in the House, raising the possibility that placing the amendment on the November general election ballot could secure its approval.

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle was quick to respond, immediately pulling 13 bills from the Senate floor that could have been amended to include Medicaid expansion. In addition, the Senate Public Health Committee, which was scheduled to take action on the compromise expansion bill, decided to delay any action and asked supporters of the constitutional amendment to testify instead. Groups like Kansans for Life, and the Catholic Conference of Kansas, who are now working against Medicaid expansion, argued that state funds will somehow be forced to pay for abortions, despite federal prohibitions.

Sen. Wagle has been roundly criticized for her actions, which have been called anywhere from "childish" to "partisan showboating."  Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning said they were "obstructive and not how we should be governing."

My guess is that Medicaid expansion supporters across the state of Kansas have widely differing views on the issue of abortion and the appropriateness of the Kansas Supreme Court decision at the heart of this discussion. I'm pretty certain those supporters, no matter what their view on abortion, have never viewed these two issues as linked and, in fact, have preferred to not be dragged into the abortion debate.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened. Expansion is now being held hostage because the aforementioned constitutional amendment has not passed. This is happening even though these are two separate and distinct issues. It is happening even though the argument that state funds for Medicaid expansion will be eaten up to pay for abortions is at best a colossal stretch. And it is happening even though Sen. Wagle will never support Medicaid expansion, no matter what happens with the constitutional amendment.

I agree with Sen. Denning—this is not what good government looks like.
--Tom Bell