Democrats and moderate GOP herald ‘a new day’ in Kansas House

The Kansas House on Wednesday voted to override a veto, pass Medicaid expansion and restore teacher tenure protections. (File photo/The Capital-Journal)

Applause broke out during a gathering of House Democrats on Thursday.

 

They have watched throughout the years legislation they don’t support regularly pass and had their amendments voted down, but House Democrats experienced one of their best days in recent memory this week. The chamber voted Wednesday to override Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a tax bill, restore teacher tenure and expand Medicaid.

The House is showing its progressive side.

Moderate Republicans and Democrats are demonstrating an ability to form ad hoc coalitions to advance legislation with veto-proof or close to veto-proof majorities, at times to the dismay of conservative Republicans.

“It was so interesting, because ultra-conservatives had to feel like the Democrats,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City. “They were the minority party yesterday. I think it finally sunk in to me that it is a new day in the Kansas Legislature.”

Voters angered by persistent budget problems and frustrated with Brownback swept a wave of moderate and Democratic lawmakers into the House last fall. Democrats gained 12 House seats in the general election.

Thursday’s debates offered the starkest example yet of how much the House has changed.

Eighty-five lawmakers voted to override Brownback’s veto of House Bill 2178 just hours after the governor officially rejected it. The bill would have raised personal income tax rates, reinstated a third tax bracket and eliminated an exemption for some businesses to raise more than $590 million next year to help fill a budget shortfall.

In 2015, a more conservative Legislature struggled for weeks to pull together the votes need to approve a package of sales tax, cigarette and other tax hikes. Two years later, the House both passed personal income tax increases and voted to override in the span of less than a week.

The House also voted to expand Medicaid, days after the legislation had died in committee. In the previous Legislature, leadership took steps to prevent a vote on expansion.

The vote came at a time when the future of the program is in question. In Washington, congressional Republicans talk of converting the program to block grants, with the help of the GOP-controlled White House.

The initial House vote of 83-40 on Wednesday was just one shy of a veto-proof majority. The final vote Thursday was nearly as strong, at 81-44.

And lawmakers voted to restore due process protections for teachers. The Legislature stripped out the provisions in 2014. Like Medicaid, a bill to restore the protections stalled in committee but was revived on the House floor.

“What does all of this mean? What it means is the long hoped for coalition between Democrats and reasonable, moderate Republican members has coalesced early, and it’s proven effective,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita.

Longtime House member Rep. Tom Sawyer had trouble recalling the last time the chamber had advanced so much Democrat-supported legislation so quickly. The Wichita Democrat suggested it may not have happened since the early 1990s, when the Democrats had a majority.

Wednesday’s developments were encouraging, said Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway. Elections matter, she said, and the attention paid by voters and the effects of their choices are evident.

Lawmakers have been able to work across the aisle with members of the other party, but also within their own party, Rooker said. She praised the tone set by House leadership.

Although House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, didn’t support the veto override or Medicaid expansion, he didn’t wield his power to stop votes.

“I think all of it has contributed to a much healthier process,” Rooker said.

The past few days have marked a sharp change of fortune for some conservative Republicans, who had enjoyed legislative victories in recent years. Conservatives no longer control the chamber, said Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita.

He said he has spoken with other lawmakers and they have “never seen it like this.”

“It is clearly — and you use moderate, I use liberal — but it is clearly moderate-liberal Republicans and the Democrats in charge,” Whitmer said. “I mean, when was the last time you saw the speaker and the speaker pro tem in the minority and every other member of leadership voting with Democrats to push bills through?”

Whitmer said he is open to finding compromise on bills. But he also said conservatives have short-term and long-term ways to combat legislation they oppose. For now, the Senate can serve as a check, and the governor remains a factor.

Brownback vetoed the tax bill after some lawmakers had thought he might allow it to become law without his signature. The Senate also failed to override the veto, and Senate President Susan Wagle and Majority Leader Jim Denning didn’t back the motion.

Ultimately, Whitmer said, the people will decide. He suggested lawmakers will pay a political price for the policies they are supporting now.

Although moderate Republicans and Democrats voted for the tax bill and voted to override, some are hesitant to vote again and again for tax increase packages that get vetoed and don’t become law. Those are the kind of votes conservatives could use against lawmakers in re-election campaigns.

“You’ve got to think long-term,” Whitmer said. “Worst case scenario, you’ll fix it in two years at the ballot box.”

12Days
 

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