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Kansas Governor Kelly Ramps Up Campaign To Separate Abortion Politics From Medicaid Expansion

Jim McLean
Kansas News Service
Abortion protestors this year in Topeka, where Medicaid expansion and an anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution have become entagled.

TOPEKA, Kansas — A pressure campaign led by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly aims to force Republican Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle to drop her blockade of a vote to expand Medicaid.

A majority of state senators back the plan, virtually assuring its passage if Wagle allowed a vote.

But Wagle, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, insists that the Legislature first put an anti-abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution up for a statewide vote.

That kind of political gamesmanship, the governor contends, entangles two issues that ought to succeed or fail on their own merits.

“It’s time,” Kelly said, “to stop playing games with people’s health.”

The amendment would essentially overturn a recent Kansas Supreme Court decision that declared access to abortion a “fundamental” right under the state’s Bill of Rights.

So far, Wagle’s roadblock has worked. But with the legislative session at its midway point, other legislative leaders are stepping up efforts to end the stalemate.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning — the Republican who negotiated the expansion compromise with Kelly — is spearheading those negotiations.

“The sooner we resolve it,” Denning said, “the better for everyone.”

Better for everyone except Wagle, perhaps.

Abortion is a defining issue for many conservative voters. So some see Wagle’s fight for the constitutional amendment as an effort to boost support for her U.S. Senate bid.

Insisting politics didn’t drive her decision, Wagle acknowledges the standoff illustrates her willingness to fight for conservative causes.

“I’m the proven conservative in the race with a record that voters can trust,” she said.

Growing Pressure

Pressure has been building for weeks on legislative leaders — mostly Wagle — to negotiate an end to the stalemate.

“The Kansas Legislature is playing a dangerous game of chicken with Medicaid expansion and the abortion amendment — and, truth be known, with public health,” the Kansas City Star said in a Feb. 26 editorial.

Last week, more than 70 Kansas Catholic nuns signed an open letter urging legislators to move forward on expansion.

“We cannot wait any longer to give Kansans the care they so desperately need,” the nuns said in the letter written under the banner of the Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, a national advocacy group for Catholic sisters.

In acolumn published in the Topeka Capital-Journal last weekend, three former presidents of the Kansas Senate — all Republicans — called on Wagle to reverse what they called her “reckless decision.”

Kelly continued the pressure campaign Monday. She traveled to Wichita with Denning to criticize Wagle in meetings with health care and faith leaders that her office encouraged media to cover.

Kelly called Wagle’s actions “immoral.”

“The lives of the people of Kansas are really on the line here,” she said.

The plan would expand Medicaid coverage to more than 130,000 low-income Kansans not eligible for the program today. Expansion would cover people whose household earnings fall below 138% of the federal poverty level — $36,156 for a family of four.

Kansas is one of 14 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which requires that the federal government cover 90% of the cost. 

Wagle Not Budging

Wagle, a 20-year legislative veteran, is standing firm.

Credit Jim McLean / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle talks at an anti-abortion rally.

In an interview with the Kansas News Service conducted while Kelly was in Wichita, Wagle said expansion supporters may have the votes to pass the compromise. But she said they lack the number needed to pry it out of committee and bring it to the floor.

The abortion issue, she said, “trumps Medicaid expansion.”

Several senators who favor expansion are concerned about moving forward without first approving the constitutional amendment, Wagle said.

They’re “worried,” Wagle said, about expanding Medicaid without first ensuring that the state’s ban on taxpayer-funded abortions would remain in force.

Expansion supporters insist that isn’t a valid concern because Kansas law — unlike some other states — allows only those exceptions permitted under federal law.

The Senate approved the anti-abortion amendment in late January. The following week, the House fell four votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to advance it to a statewide vote.

If Kansas voters don’t ratify the amendment, abortion restrictions already in place could be challenged and “wiped off the books,” Wagle said.

So, she said, “until that amendment passes” there will be no vote on Medicaid expansion.

Wagle Workaround

In the end, it may not matter whether Wagle yields.

Denning, the second-ranking Republican in the Kansas Senate, said he thinks he can rally enough senators behind a compromise to force a Medicaid expansion vote even over Wagle’s objections. He said several lawmakers attended a meeting in his office Tuesday to discuss options.

“We’re going to work all angles,” Denning said. “There are many, many options on the table.”

Some of the House members who voted against the constitutional amendment say they’re open to supporting it if it’s placed on the November general election ballot.

The anti-abortion groups lobbying for the amendment insist that it remain on the August primary ballot. They think it has a better chance of passing then because a spirited race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination will likely boost the number of conservatives who turn out.

Despite that opposition, Denning said, a date change is one of the options under discussion.

“I know that (anti-abortion group Kansans for Life) is adamantly opposed to that, but I think we can give them good reasons why they should (agree to it),” he said.

Other options include re-writing the proposed amendment to “guarantee” that lawmakers couldn’t ban abortion in cases of rape, incest or when a woman’s life is in danger.

If negotiations don’t produce a compromise, Denning said, he’s confident he can pry the Medicaid expansion bill out of committee and force a vote on the Senate floor.

Republican House Speaker Ron Ryckman is another key figure in the negotiations. He’s opposed to Medicaid expansion, but the anti-abortion amendment is his top priority.

Noting Ryckman’s participation in Tuesday’s strategy session, Denning said: “We’re very much working together to get this thing moving forward.”

Wagle has said she’s prepared to block consideration of the Medicaid expansion compromise for as long as it takes.

However, Denning said negotiations now underway will lead to a breakthrough.

“We will get there before we go home,” he said. “We have to.”

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Jim McLean is a political correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration based at KCUR with other public media stations across Kansas. You can email him at jim@kcur.org.
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