TOPEKA | Most members of the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature would like to thwart a key mandate in the President Barack Obama's federal health care overhaul, but the state's voters aren't likely to get a chance to weigh in this year.
Senators on Thursday narrowly rejected a proposed health care “freedom” amendment to the state constitution, containing language that mirrors a law legislators enacted last year. It would declare that Kansans have a right to refuse to buy health insurance and can't be fined or penalized for that decision.
Supporters fell one vote short, 26-14, of a two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional change. Some GOP senators thought the amendment was meaningless, arguing that the fate of any federal health insurance law will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and, if upheld, overrule any state policy.
Kansas has no mechanism for putting issues to a popular vote statewide, other than proposing a constitutional amendment. Conservative Republicans who are the strongest critics of what they call “Obamacare” argue that it's valuable to allow Kansans to make a statement.
“It's all about push-back,” said Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican. “We're in a battle, a battle about whether the rights of citizens shall be overridden by the government.”
Both the amendment and the health care “freedom” law approved last year attack a policy in the federal health care law that requires most Americans to buy health insurance, starting in 2014. Legal challenges to the overhaul are before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the justices are expected to issue a decision by the summer.
Passing last year's state law was significantly easier, because it required only simple majorities in both chambers and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's signature.
Had the proposed amendment gone on the ballot, the statewide vote would have been in November.
The chamber's eight Democrats were joined by six of the 32 Republicans to block it. One of them, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Owens of Overland Park, said lawmakers shouldn't tell voters that a state policy can protect them from a federal law.
“This is nothing more than it looks good, it feels good and we're sending some kind of message, but we really don't know that it's going to do anything for us at all,” he said.
Yet some critics argued amending the constitution could prove to be problematic even if it didn't block a federal mandate. They said it could, for example, prevent Kansans from receiving new benefits under federal programs such as Medicare, which provides health coverage for the elderly.
“At a minimum, it misleads the citizens of the state of Kansas,” said Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, another “no” vote. “At a maximum, it's dangerous.”
Supporters brushed aside such arguments. Sen. Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said that even if a state policy can't overrule federal law, the state could challenge federal rules and policies. Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican, said the recent controversy over the Obama administration's attempt to have even religious groups offer health insurance coverage for birth control to their employees shows action is needed.
“This is an issue that if given the opportunity, I believe the 2.5 million people of the state of Kansas will send a resolute message to our federal government to stay out of our business, to stay out of our personal lives,” said state Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican. “It is about liberty.”
Proposed health care freedom amendment is HCR 5007.