Feb 19, 2020 10:00 AM

Kan. Medicaid expansion blocked — lawmakers considering 'nuclear option'

Posted Feb 19, 2020 10:00 AM
 Medicaid expansion advocates attend a rally last month at the Kansas Statehouse. Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service
Medicaid expansion advocates attend a rally last month at the Kansas Statehouse. Stephen Koranda / Kansas News Service

By STEPHEN KORANDA, Kansas News Service

TOPEKA — The Kansas legislative session began with what seemed like a done deal for expanding Medicaid. Gov. Laura Kelly and a top Republican senator had forged a compromise to offer health coverage for up to 130,000 low-income Kansans.

About a month later, the deal has ground to a halt — and even the state budget could be held up — because of abortion politics. Medicaid supporters are irritated. Moderate Republicans and Democrats are ready to fight back with delays. And abortion opponents haven’t budged.

“I’m pretty frustrated,” said Republican Sen. Randall Hardy, who supports expanding Medicaid. “I’m willing to consider almost anything at this point.”

The strategy of holding up the Legislature to get Medicaid expansion is a risky play, Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty said. It could anger voters if the delay drags on to the point that important services like roads and law enforcement aren’t funded.

“This is the nuclear option,” Beatty said, “because the last thing voters, constituents and even legislators want is for the Legislature to not be able to do anything, including funding programs that everybody agrees should be funded.”

The Senate already passed the proposed constitutional amendment on abortion, which would overturn a court ruling that said the state constitution gurantees women a right to the procedure. But the House narrowly rejected it on Feb. 7.

That led the influential anti-abortion group Kansans for Life to call for blocking Medicaid expansion until the amendment is on a ballot, something Republican Senate President Susan Wagle has promised will happen.

Abortion opponents say the delay is necessary, fearing that the court ruling on abortion rights could lead to state money being used for abortions through an expanded Medicaid program.

“If we want to be able to protect human life and protect the citizens of Kansas from being forced to fund abortions through Medicaid, then this is just a position that we have to take,” Kansans For Life’s Director of Government Relations Jeanne Gawdun said earlier this month.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, the Republican who helped draft the Medicaid compromise, is pushing back, saying state funding would not go to abortion due to federal law.

Last year, Democrats and moderate Republicans tried holding up the budget in the House to get Medicaid expansion, but ultimately didn’t have enough votes. The top Democrat in the House said expansion is such a high priority this year that they’re willing to try again if needed.

“We will keep discussing it with them to get that leverage,” House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer said.

Since Republicans hold strong majorities in both chambers, Democrats would need to attract a healthy number of Republicans like Hardy if they hope to successfully block any bills.

Meanwhile, Medicaid supporters held a rally last week, shouting their disapproval of the whole situation inside the Statehouse.

“There’s been one delay after another,” Alliance for a Healthy Kansas Executive Director April Holman said, “with no end in sight.”

Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.

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Feb 19, 2020 10:00 AM
Kansas gov. says her plan restores state's roads without a tax hike
U.S. 69 in Overland Park at dawn, as traffic quickly fills up a highway that clogs nearly every rush hour. Scott Canon / Kansas News Service

By JIM MCLEAN, Kansas News Service

TOPEKA — Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s transportation plan isn’t as bold as those that came before it.

Since the 1990s, Kansas has spent tens of billions of dollars on three successive 10-year programs. Each required a tax increase and launched with a commitment to complete a long list of new building projects.

But Kelly, a Democrat who won election on a promise to restore the state’s finances, isn’t proposing a bunch of new projects. And she isn’t seeking a tax increase to help pay for her plan.

Instead, she’s pledging to stop taking money from the Kansas Department of Transportation — and asking lawmakers to do the same — so that the agency can rebuild roads and bridges suffering from years of lax maintenance. She’s also promising to complete all but one of the 21 projects abandoned during a budget crisis that followed tax cuts passed under Republican Sam Brownback when he was governor.

Half of the $10 billion Kelly proposes spending over the next 10 years is earmarked for maintenance work.

“We must close the ‘Bank of KDOT’ and make sure that funding for transportation is spent on transportation,” Kelly said last when announcing the program.

That means no more raids on the pool of money earmarked for transportation.

Those raids were commonplace during the Brownback administration. With tax revenues plummeting, Brownback and lawmakers diverted about $2 billion to plug gaping holes in the state budget.

Kelly has slowed the transfers and pledged to end them by 2023.

Limited money for big projects

Breaking with precedent, Kelly isn’t committing to a set list of highway projects. Instead, said KDOT Secretary Julie Lorenz, a handful of projects will be selected every two years based on what the agency concludes are the most urgent needs.

Doing that, she said, will give the agency the flexibility it needs to respond to emerging issues and “make good investments that stand the test of time.”

At the moment, Lorenz said, nothing is more urgent than expanding a section of U.S. 69 that cuts through the Johnson County community of Overland Park. It’s the busiest stretch of four-lane highway in the state. More than 80,000 daily commuters regularly transform it into a virtual parking lot during the morning and evening rush hours.

“In terms of congestion on a four-lane highway, it’s the worst in the state,” Lorenz said. “It gets a grade of ‘F’ today and it gets worse in the future if we don’t do something about it.”

Engineering a solution isn’t a problem, finding a way to pay for it is, said Carl Gerlach, the mayor of Overland Park.

Adding express lanes that motorists would have to pay to use is likely the only way to get the proposed $300 million project done quickly, he said.

“If we don’t do something unique and different like tolling, we may have to wait ten,13,14 years before we get U.S. 69 expanded,” Gerlach said. “Can we do that? I don’t think so.”

The express lanes would likely be built in between the existing northbound and southbound lanes. Drivers would use electronic gadgets like those that automatically record their tolls on the Kansas Turnpike.

Express lanes have a mixed record. Still, research done by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles found that toll lanes can be a cost-effective way to reduce traffic congestion. They’re more effective than simply adding more “free” lanes to existing roads or expanding mass transit.

“Pricing reduces congestion,” ITS researchers said in a recent report. “Nothing else does.”

Under Kansas law, you can’t charge tolls on existing highways. Just new ones.

To add express lanes on U.S. 69, state and local officials would have to produce a study that they would both ease congestion and partially pay for themselves.

Lorenz thinks the project can be finished more quickly by putting it on a regulatory and logistical fast-track. So, she wants to start construction while engineers are still working on the design, rather than waiting until all the blueprints get drafted and approved.

KDOT used that process for the first time on a massive interchange in Johnson County finished in 2017. It connects Interstates 35 and 435 with Kansas 10.

“We shaved a year off that schedule and we got 12% more project … for the dollars,” she said.

Using the faster process to deliver the U.S. 69 project, Lorenz said, would save more than money.

“For every year that we delay in building your project, folks sit in traffic five million hours,” she said.

Balancing urban and rural needs

While many of the state’s most pressing transportation needs are in urban and suburban centers, Lorenz said there’s also money in the plan for road projects in rural Kansas. But, she said, not enough to satisfy the desire for four-lane highways everywhere local officials are clamoring for them.

Southwest Kansas is a case in point. Residents there say heavy truck traffic to massive meatpacking facilities in Garden City, Dodge City and Liberal have made existing roads unsafe.

“If you travel on Highway 83, you … would not believe all the trucks,” said Beth Tedrow, a Garden City Community College trustee, at a meeting with state lawmakers from the region just prior to the state of the 2020 legislative session.

Officials in the region can make a case for a four-lane highway, Lorenz said, but the state simply doesn’t have the money to build one unless communities in the region can cover a substantial portion of the cost.

“So, I’m working hard to sell passing lanes,” Lorenz said.

In addition to being cheaper to build and maintain, she said, passing lanes “provide an enormous safety benefit.”

A recent KDOT study that evaluated the effectiveness of the passing lanes along a section of U.S. 400 in southeast Kansas showed they reduced crashes by 32%.

If a community that wants a four-lane is willing to accept passing lanes as an intermediate step, that increases the chances for state funding, Lorenz said.

“We will give them bonus points, if you will, additional consideration,” she said.

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 [email protected]