As the 2018 legislative session opened, House Minority Leader Jim Ward said he expected this to be a “very difficult” year. In particular, because lawmakers need to develop a school finance formula that will satisfy the Supreme Court by April 30.
Ward projected, quite accurately, said bipartisanship would make the session successful:
“Kansas works best when we work together up here. Really, in my tenure, all good solutions and policies have been a product of bipartisan coalitions, and I hope to re-establish those coalitions this year as we work through school finance.”
It makes sense for Ward to emphasize the effect of bipartisanship after a year when a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats overrode Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto and repealed his devastating 2012 tax cuts.
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of that moment for Kansas. Not only did it prevent the state from stumbling into an even deeper fiscal hole, but it also proved that lawmakers were capable of fulfilling their promises to pass major bipartisan legislation. After years of conservative domination in the Legislature, voters and lawmakers finally decided that it was time for more practical, less ideological governance.
Tax reform was not the only area where bipartisanship prevailed last year.
Although the Personal and Family Protection Act, which permits firearms in public buildings and on university campuses, went into full effect in July, lawmakers were able to pass a vital exemption for public hospitals and mental health centers.
The Legislature also secured raises for state workers, many of whom had not received a pay increase in almost a decade.
Although the Supreme Court ruled that education funding is still constitutionally inadequate and inequitable, the Legislature was able to inject $293 million into our K-12 education system.
Then there was the Legislature’s attempt to expand Medicaid in Kansas, which was foiled only by Brownback’s veto. The Senate voted 25-14 in favor of the bill, while the House voted 81-44 — healthy majorities that reflect the widespread support for Medicaid expansion in our state.
But Brownback promptly vetoed the bill, and the House fell three votes short of overriding him.
Despite this failure, it is remarkable the Legislature came so close to expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act at a time when conservatives were using the volatile health care situation in Washington as an excuse for inaction.
Ward is right that lawmakers face a “very difficult” session, but moderates have proven capable of passing significant legislation and challenging the governor’s veto when necessary.
While the development of a new school finance bill will be a dominant preoccupation, lawmakers cannot ignore other issues that demand their attention — from an overburdened and underperforming foster care system to a lack of mental health resources across the state to struggling rural hospitals to $9 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman says he doesn’t think Medicaid expansion will be a priority this year. But when rural hospitals are struggling, more than $2 billion in federal funding has been forfeited and 150,000 low-income Kansans are stuck in a coverage gap (earning too much to qualify for KanCare, but not enough to qualify for assistance in purchasing private insurance), lawmakers have a responsibility to debate it.
Given the magnitude of these challenges, lawmakers should ignore the political noise this election season and continue to display the bipartisanship that allowed them to govern so effectively last session.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.