By Stephen Koranda
The 2020 Kansas Legislature is underway. And while Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly laid out some of her top priorities during the State of the State address on Wednesday, Republican leaders of the House and Senate (and Kelly’s fellow Democrats) have some different goals.
Here are five issues that will be top of mind for the governor and lawmakers as the session heats up.
The short of it: A new bipartisan compromise might pave the way for Medicaid expansion in Kansas, but it’s not a done deal.
The details: Just days before lawmakers returned to Topeka, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Senate Republican Leader Jim Denning unveiled a Medicaid expansion compromise.
The plan potentially could add another 150,000 low-income Kansans, and includes some things Republicans have been looking for, like a work-referral program and a provision aimed at stabilizing costs on the federal health-insurance exchange.
Kelly was clear in her State of the State about what expanding Medicaid would mean.
“When we do add this to our list of bipartisan accomplishments, it will not only save lives,” she said, “it will close the book on a long, senseless, expensive political fight — making room to improve access to health care and grow the Kansas economy.”
The agreement marks a major shift, as Denning was one of the lawmakers who helped block Medicaid expansion in past sessions. But other Republican leaders have not endorsed the compromise, including House Speaker Ron Ryckman.
“We all agree that we need to have a safety net for folks that need it,” Ryckman said. “This will be the first time in our history we’re extending benefits to folks that can work.”
Still, with the compromise drafted, expansion advocates believe they’re starting the session in a strong position to succeed after years of failed efforts.
The short of it: Kelly and Republican leaders are likely to clash over tax policy in the wake of federal changes.
The details: Republicans may take another run at tax changes after the governor last session vetoed their proposals — including helping businesses — due to concerns they would cause budget troubles.
Republicans, however, say that some Kansans and businesses saw their state taxes go up in response to federal changes, which is something the GOP wants to counteract. Larger businesses with overseas income would have benefitted under the vetoed bills.
Trying to get those changes through is again a priority for some lawmakers and the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce.
“Corporate income tax liability in Kansas increased,” Chamber President Alan Cobb said last month. “We’re at a corporate competitive disadvantage.”
Many lawmakers want to cut the food sales tax, which is a popular idea that’s difficult to accomplish because of the cost. Cutting it by a single percentage point would reduce tax revenue by more than $60 million.
Kelly has proposed reinstating a food sales tax refund, which lower-income Kansans would file for on their taxes. The thought is lessen the financial burden for people who need it most while limiting the impact on the state budget.
The short of it: Kansas took a baby step last session toward allowing medical weed, something advocates hope is the sign of a tipping point.
The details: More and more states are legalizing medical marijuana, including neighboring states of Missouri and Oklahoma, or outright recreational use of the drug (see: Colorado).
Kelly has said she supports medical marijuana, but the question is what type of bill lawmakers could craft in order for it to make it to her desk, considering previous efforts have failed.
Lawmakers did venture into the cannabis caucus last year, giving people a legal defense if they use CBD oil containing limited amounts of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
One idea that a committee studied before the 2020 session would allow only edible and topical forms of weed, not products that you can smoke. Another bipartisan proposal introduced last year would give veterans the first access to medical cannabis for treating PTSD or physical injuries.
Democratic Sen. David Haley believes enough states have taken action that Kansas may follow suit.
“Finally, the learning curve is coming to Kansas,” Haley said. Later, he added, “Let’s no longer look at the stigma. We have passed those days.”
The short of it: Abortion opponents want to change the Kansas Constitution to protect the dozens of abortion laws already on the books.
The details: Abortion opponents in Kansas were rattled by a court ruling last year that found, in essence, the right to abortion is in the state constitution. They’re concerned that’ll lead to knocking down abortion restrictions already in state law, such as banning many abortions after 22 weeks unless the mother’s health is at risk.
Conservative lawmakers and advocacy groups will push this session to change the constitution to specifically say it doesn’t provide a right to abortion, thus protecting restrictions already in place. Approving a constitutional amendment, which forces a statewide vote, is a top priority for Ryckman.
“We want the folks of Kansas to make that decision: if we’re going to be a pro-life state or not,” Ryckman said.
There’s division among opponents of abortion on the issue. Some would like to go as far as a constitutional amendment that would fully ban abortion. The influential anti-abortion group Kansans for Life doesn’t favor that tactic, though, because they believe it would probably not stand up in court.
The short of it: The governor wants extra time to pay off the $9 billion in state pension debt so that Kansas’ budget doesn’t fall off a cliff.
The details: Lawmakers have made strides in recent years paying down a long-term deficit in the state pension, the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. Still, the shortfall amounts to $9 billion.
There’s a plan in place to pay off the debt in about 15 years. Kelly said the payments will grow in the coming years to approach $1 billion annually, and the state should extend the payoff period for smaller payments. That’s known as reamortizing.
Her idea was roundly rejected by lawmakers last year, because extending the payoff period could ultimately add billions to the cost of eliminating the shortfall. Republican Senate President Susan Wagle hasn’t warmed up to the idea, either, saying on the first day of this session: “I just don’t think that’s a healthy thing to do for a budget.”
Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.
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. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.