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Kansas lawmakers settle fiscal issues amid Medicaid protest

May 29, 2019
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Rev. Sarah Ogelsby-Dunegan, a Unitarian minister from Topeka, Kan., leads a protest in favor of Medicaid expansion, Wednesday, May 29, 2019, in the Senate gallery at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. The protest temporarily shut down the Senate, and nine protesters were arrested. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican legislators on Wednesday reversed actions by Kansas’ Democratic governor to reshape the state budget to her liking, but they couldn’t save a GOP tax relief plan and had their work briefly delayed by a loud protest in favor of expanding Medicaid.

The GOP-controlled Legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes of several items in the next state budget, including an extra $51 million payment to the state’s public pension system to help boost its long-term financial stability. She had argued for socking away more funds in the state’s cash reserves as a hedge against a future economic downturn.

Republicans failed to override Kelly’s veto of a tax bill aimed at providing relief to businesses and individuals paying more in state income taxes because of changes in federal tax laws at the end of 2017. The governor argued that it would “decimate” the state budget as it saved taxpayers roughly $240 million over three years.

Lawmakers’ last scheduled day in session, often short and quiet in past years, turned raucous because of a protest for Medicaid expansion in the Senate gallery. When demonstrators refused to stop singing and chanting, the Senate halted its work to clear the gallery and floor — and a Capitol Police officer required reporters to leave the chamber temporarily.

Kelly’s inability to win passage of a plan to expand the state’s Medicaid health coverage for up to 150,000 additional people was her biggest setback since taking office in January. The House passed a plan in March but the Senate didn’t debate it because GOP leaders wanted further study and a vote on the issue next year.

“Lord, hear our prayer! We want health care!” the Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan, a Unitarian minister from Topeka, shouted from the gallery as the Senate took up budget issues.

Kelly has clashed with top Republicans most on taxes, pension funding and Medicaid expansion. Supporters say Medicaid expansion would provide health coverage to tens of thousands of poor and working-class families who cannot afford any private insurance or who are struggling to pay for it. Republican critics fear it would prove expensive for the state despite the federal government’s promise to cover most of the cost.

Lawmakers approved a record $18.4 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins in July, with extra money for public schools, higher education, social services and prisons.

The pension system for Kansas teachers and government workers is less than 70 percent funded over the long-term and GOP leaders argue that any extra step to close the gap is worth doing.

“This particular funding is just another step to getting this 800-pound gorilla off of our back,” said state Rep. Jim Kelly, a moderate Republican from southeastern Kansas who isn’t related to the goveror.

Laura Kelly also vetoed extra funds for community mental health centers and money targeted to reading and technical education programs in public schools.

Republican leaders had lawmakers vote on all of the budget vetoes in one package to increase their chances of getting the needed two-thirds majorities to override them. The votes were 27-11 in the Senate and 86-30 in the House, where four Democrats broke with the governor.

“Those were the worst things ever to cut from the budget,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican.

But Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, chided Republicans for supporting the additional spending while pursuing tax relief that he said would make the spending harder to sustain. Laura Kelly’s spokeswoman, Ashley All, said GOP lawmakers “failed to exercise fiscal responsibility.”

The House voted 78-39 to override the governor’s veto of the tax bill, but supporters needed 84 votes for a two-thirds majority in the 125-member chamber. Kelly also vetoed a larger GOP tax relief bill in March, and in Wednesday’s vote, six Republicans broke ranks with their leaders.

Top Republicans argued that it is unfair that some Kansans are automatically paying more in state taxes because of the federal tax changes, without any intervention by legislators.

Lawmakers had not expected to debate Medicaid expansion Wednesday. Advocates have been pushing expansion for seven years, stymied by Republican governors’ opposition until Kelly took office.

About 40 protesters stood outside the Senate chamber before it convened, chanting and singing. Nine went into the gallery to sing and chant slogans such as “Love God! Love People!” after Oglesby-Dunegan started the protest.

Capitol police and doorkeepers closed the gallery and tried to get the demonstrators out. Wagle’s aides tried to clear the Senate floor — though Democrats declined to leave.

Wagle’s office tweeted that it wanted to clear the floor for safety reasons. But her chief of staff, Harrison Hems, told reporters they were giving demonstrators “an audience” by shooting pictures and recording video, making it harder to restore order.

He added, “It’s a privilege to have a press pass.”

Wagle later said her office wasn’t singling out reporters, only trying to clear the floor and end the demonstration. The Kansas Sunshine Coalition, an open-government advocacy group, filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office.

Hems said nine demonstrators were arrested, but the Kansas Highway Patrol, which oversees the Capitol police, said all but Oglesby-Dunegan were merely escorted out of the gallery. She received a summons to appear in court on a possible misdemeanor charge of illegally interfering with public business, Patrol Lt. Stephen Larow said.

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Editors: This story has been corrected to show that the minister’s name is Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan.

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