Kansas lawmakers in impasse over budget, Medicaid expansion

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -

The Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature is locked in an impasse over a Medicaid expansion plan favored by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, unable to pass a new budget that will keep state government operating after June.

Lawmakers were set to return Saturday to the Statehouse to try to untangle their knot after the House on Friday rejected two different versions of a proposed $18.4 billion spending blueprint for the budget year beginning in July. Democrats and moderate Republicans blocked them in hopes of forcing a vote in the Senate on an expansion plan.

Kelly and other expansion advocates are pushing legislators to pass a plan now to extend Medicaid health coverage to as many as 150,000 more Kansas residents. Top Republicans have argued that legislators need more time to get the details right and consider options, including work requirements, that could control costs. They want to pass an expansion bill next year.

The budget gives expansion advocates leverage, because legislators can’t wrap up their business for the year without passing one.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get Medicaid expansion,” said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat. “If we fail, we haven’t lost anything.”

Kelly’s election last year raised hopes that Kansas would join 36 other states that have expanded Medicaid or seen voters pass ballot initiatives. The House passed a Medicaid expansion bill in March, but it’s stalled in the Senate.

While the measure has bipartisan support in both chambers, GOP conservatives who oppose it hold top leadership jobs and head key committees. Top Republicans argue that the expansion Kelly is backing is likely to be more expensive than her administration projects and doesn’t do anything to control health care costs.

“All we’re trying to do here in the Senate is protect Kansans from a major tax increase,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican. “The bill that the House sent over will unquestionably require new funds to finance it.”

The 2010 Affordable Care Act championed by former Democratic President Barack Obama promised that the federal government would cover the bulk of states’ expansion costs. Kelly’s administration projected a net cost to the state of $34 million for the first full year, though advocates argue the influx of federal dollars would spur economic activity and boost state tax revenues.

GOP leaders put a higher priority on providing relief to individuals and businesses paying higher state income taxes because of changes in federal tax laws at the end of 2017. Kelly vetoed a Republican tax relief bill in March, but the Senate approved a new, smaller measure Thursday, and supporters needed only a favorable House vote to send it to Kelly.

But starting Friday, everything was waiting on passage of a budget.

The first budget proposal, rejected by the House on a 63-61 vote, was a good one for Kelly, fellow Democrats and moderate Republicans. After House and Senate negotiators hashed out the details, it had extra money for higher education, the prison system and state employee pay raises.

Top Republicans warned colleagues that they wouldn’t see such generous spending again. Sure enough when budget talks resumed the GOP negotiators started taking spending out.

Expansion supporters saw it as an attempt to scare moderate Republicans back into GOP leaders’ fold.

Among other things, the second budget proposal removed $14 million in state funds for hospitals, and it could have cost them an additional $250 million in federal funds. The Kansas Hospital Association is a strong expansion supporter. It failed on an 81-42 vote.