TOPEKA – Republicans blocked a debate Wednesday in the Kansas House on a proposed expansion of the state’s Medicaid program before giving first-round approval to budget-balancing legislation.
The bill advancing on a voice vote eliminates a projected deficit of nearly $200 million in the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
House members expect to take a final vote Thursday, when the Senate plans to consider its own plan. Before those votes, the Kansas Supreme Court was to rule lawsuit against the state over funding for public schools, which could complicate the budget.
During a five-hour debate Wednesday, the GOP-dominated House voted 85-37 against debating a proposal from Democratic Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita to expand for three years the health program for the poor, a move encouraged by President Barack Obama’s health care law. The Kansas Medicaid program provides coverage for 362,000 poor and disabled Kansans, and Ward’s proposal would have provided coverage for another 160,000 people.
He wanted to attach the expansion to the deficit-closing bill, which contained dozens of changes in the state’s $16.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year. The GOP-led House rules committee declared Ward’s amendment out of order.
The Kansas Hospital Association and many advocates for the poor and disabled are pushing for an expansion of the Medicaid program. The 2010 federal health care law encouraged states to expand their Medicaid programs by promising that the federal government would pick up almost all of the costs.
“This is vital to the future of Kansas,” Ward said. “Today is the day.”
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP legislative leaders have argued that the federal government can’t be trusted to keep its funding promises because of its own budget problems. Opponents also believe expanding Medicaid would be far more expensive for Kansas than supporters of the idea say.
“It could well go into the hundreds of millions of dollars,” said House health committee Chairman Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican.
The House’s action came a day after Senate health committee Chairwoman Mary Pilcher-Cook, a conservative Shawnee Republican, attempted to force a debate on expanding Medicaid in her chamber – in hopes of killing a proposal. The Senate rules committee declared her effort out of order Tuesday.
The House’s Republican leaders were hoping their chamber would give their budget-balancing plan first-round approval Wednesday, so that the chamber could take a final vote Thursday. The Senate planned to debate its own plan Thursday.
The House bill contains many of Brownback’s proposals to eliminate the gap in the next state budget by shuffling state funds and capturing unanticipated savings. Democrats and some Republicans complained that the bill represented poor fiscal management.
But GOP supporters said the measure addresses crucial needs. It breaks with Brownback’s proposals by adding an additional $2.4 million to the next budget to give uniformed corrections officers at state prisons a 2.5 percent pay raise. It contains an additional $3 million for the state’s two mental hospitals to help them with staffing and other issues.
The measure also limits Brownback’s authority to temporarily short Kansas’ contributions to pensions for teachers and government workers.
It would allow the governor to act before July 1 to reduce the state’s contributions to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System to keep the budget balanced without cutting other spending.
But the House voted 89-34 to add a requirement that any such reduction be paid back by Sept. 30, with 8 percent interest. Also, the governor could not reduce or delay contributions to KPERS during the next fiscal year, something governors have been allowed to do in the past.
Rep. Steve Johnson, an Assaria Republican, said the restrictions recognize that KPERS loses investment earnings when contributions are reduced are shorted. The state had a long history of underfunding public pensions before moving in 2012 to stabilize the long-term financial health of KPERS. The pension system is now about 67 percent funded.
Democratic Rep. Ed Trimmer, of Winfield, was skeptical that any shorting of KPERS contributions would be paid back.
He said that if lawmakers believe the promise, “I’ve got land I’d like to sell you for a bridge.”