Something significant occurred recently in Olathe, the bastion of conservatism in Kansas. At a gathering billed as a GOP town hall, eight conservative Republican legislators from Johnson County were roundly booed by an unruly crowd, more than half of whom identified themselves as Olathe residents.
The standing-room audience of perhaps 100 or more was there for one main purpose: to urge legislators to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of Medicaid expansion in Kansas. The measure had passed both the House and Senate before being derailed by the governor.
If Medicaid were expanded in Kansas, about 150,000 low-income residents would join the ranks of the insured. While 31 states and the District of Columbia have taken this step, Kansas has resisted. Missouri also has not adopted an expansion of Medicaid, nor does it appear likely to do so.
I’ve been to lots of Johnson County town halls, and I have never seen anything like this. I watched the two-hour video twice, because I could barely believe what I was seeing. Longtime Olathe Mayor Mike Copeland, who moderated the event, also seemed to be caught off guard, although he did a masterful job of keeping as much control as possible with an angry, boisterous crowd.
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Among the eight legislators — four from the Senate and four from the House — were Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman Jr. of Olathe and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning of Overland Park.
In the beginning, the audience was calm and polite, as the legislators discussed their committees and what they were working on. But when the first legislator almost nonchalantly voiced opposition to Medicaid expansion, the crowd exploded.
One by one, the panelists laid out their objections to the expansion.
“Kansas cannot afford it,” even though 90 percent of the costs are picked up by the federal government.
“Medicaid is a welfare program,” even though the vast majority of recipients work.
“The federal government cannot afford to continue to subsidize Medicaid, because it is printing money it doesn’t have.” The government prints money for Medicare for the elderly, and who complains?
“Kansas spending is out of control.” That got a new chorus of boos, as the state budget crisis was labeled a “spending problem.” Asked what should be cut, the answer was “the Board of Regents.”
A half-dozen other objections were raised, each to hollering and boos.
I doubt if any of the legislators present had ever stared down an audience that wanted so much blood.
It would be easy to dismiss this outcry as some organized effort by Democrats and moderate Republicans to highjack the normally subdued Republican town hall. That is possible, but even then, rarely have crowds turned out to a political forum in a non-election year in such droves. And the fact they were so fired up is an indication of the passion involved with this issue, even by those who would not directly benefit.
As we know now, the crowd’s efforts were for naught: The Legislature did not manage to override the veto. But this issue is not going away. Polls have shown as many as 82 percent of Kansans support the expansion of Medicaid.
This will be a hot-button issue not only in legislative races in 2018, but you also can bet Medicaid expansion will be on voters’ minds in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary, as well as in the general election.
Medicaid expansion in Kansas will be debated until it eventually is adopted. Grassroots rage and frustration can turn into intense, effective campaigns. If the Olathe town hall is any indication, a lot of legislators and would-be governors could face real consequences if they oppose expansion.