Lawmakers had one primary objective during the 2018 Kansas legislative session–adopt a new school funding formula to meet a Kansas Supreme Court-mandated deadline. Whether the Court blesses their work remains to be seen. Oral hearings in the ongoing school funding showdown are set for May 22.
School funding cast a long shadow of the session, but there were other sources of intrigue in the Kansas Capitol. Here are the five biggest surprises of the 2018 session.
Medicaid Expansion Failure
It wasn’t likely to be smooth sailing no matter what, but the biggest source of headwinds — former Gov. Sam Brownback–abdicated his veto pen to his lieutenant Gov. Jeff Colyer at the end of January. Expansion advocates hoped to add 150,000 able-bodied Kansans to the Medicaid roles. They had plenty of votes during the early months of 2017 session. Last year, 81 members of the Kansas House and 25 members of the Kansas Senate approved a Medicaid expansion bill. The proposal met a swift death at the end of Brownback’s veto pen, but at the start of this year’s session, it looked as if lawmakers might have a better chance of passing it without a veto from the new Governor. Colyer eventually told people he would veto such efforts, but he never got the chance.
Despite a Medicaid expansion proposal floating through a Senate committee and a number of attempts to amend other legislation to include Medicaid expansion on the House floor, the proposal never got off the ground in 2018. When Kansas Democrats attempted to amend the budget bill with a Medicaid expansion provision at the conclusion of the 2018 session, it failed 56-66.
Rep. Tom Sloan Hops Out of Dem Closet
Rep. Tom Sloan announced his plans to retire at the end of 2018. The Lawrence Republican served 24 years in the Statehouse, and the Democratic Caucus honored him on his retirement. Though a quick Google search suggests the mainstream media didn’t publish anything about the Democrats celebrating the member of an opposing party, Twitter took note. (Some of the tweets came from reporters.)
Sloan shared that he thought before about changing parties, but had decided he could be more effective as an “irritant” within his the GOP caucus #Ksleg
— Jonathan Shorman (@jonshorman) May 3, 2018
Though regular followers of the legislature long suspected Sloan may be a member of the wrong political party, he remained a Republican throughout his 24 years in the Kansas House. He told Democratic caucus members, according to Twitter, that he considered changing parties, but thought he could be more irritating as a member of the GOP.
Study Concludes Lawmakers Don’t Care about Studies
When Kansas Legislature leadership hired Dr. Lori Taylor, a Texas A&M researcher, to conduct a study of school finances, the reaction from the education lobby, Kansas Democrats, and the mainstream media was swift. A Texas judge once called her previous research “not credible,” the stories read. A memo circulated throughout the Statehouse alleging that whatever her study concluded, it wasn’t to be trusted. This was, of course, before she’d started her Kansas research.
“Usually you don’t lead off with, ‘Courts have found me not to be credible – but that’s not true,’” Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said. An attorney for schools suing the state for more money, Alan Rupe, said if the circulating memo was character assassination, it was at the hands of the Texas judge–not the person responsible for the Kansas memo.
They were singing a different tune after Taylor’s study concluded. The study recommended the state add another $2 billion in new funding in order to reach 95 percent graduation rates. Earlier this week, in briefs to the Kansas Supreme Court, Rupe said the legislature’s own study suggested adding more than the $525 million in new school spending lawmakers eventually settled on.
Lawmakers Display Stunning Anti-Religious Bias
In their efforts to denounce what they called “discrimination,” several lawmakers revealed shocking religious bigotry. A version of the Adoption Protection Act eventually passed both chambers, but not before lawmakers invoked Nazis and slavery to denounce the idea of religious liberty.
The proposal passed the Senate early on. During that debate, Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, called Catholics “sick,” revealing a shocking hostility to religion. Sen. Lynn Rogers, a Wichita Democrat, argued the religious should have no part in public life.
Fortunately, Sen. Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, explained the end result of their lines of thinking. She asked what’s next? Grants students used to attend religious colleges like Sterling and Bethany? Medicaid fees for hospitals like the Catholic Via Christi?
“This is a step too far,” Wagle said. “…let’s bring up Catholic hospitals and faith-based colleges next.”
The legislation codifies the existing adoption policies in Kansas, but members of the Kansas House compared the status quo to Nazis and slavery during their debate later in the session.
Rep. Diana Dierks, a Salina Republican, told House members her husband is from Germany, and his parents hid Jewish families in the basement, despite concerns the SS would come to their door. She said a list of faith based churches and organizations given to lawmakers would permit child welfare agencies to discriminate against children and perspective parents.
“We saw what happened in the 1940s. Let’s not let that happen again,” she concluded in a rambling speech in opposition to the Adoption Protection Act.
Not to be outdone, Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat, said listening to the debate was difficult.
“Because Christian slaveholders used the Bible and their strongly-held religious beliefs to justify slavery,” she said.
She made no mention of abolitionists, who helped end slavery throughout the modern world. They were unequivocally motivated by their Christian faith, and one of the most famous, John Brown, is memorialized by a mural, “Tragic Prelude” in the Kansas Capitol.
Legislators Hike Taxes in Election Year
It’s unusual for Kansas lawmakers to hike taxes heading into an election year. Unfortunately for taxpayers, the 2018 legislators made an exception. Despite retroactively instituting the largest tax increase in state history last year, they opted to keep a so-called federal windfall — extra dollars the state will collect from federal tax reform–rather than give it back to taxpayers.
Many lawmakers are denying that they raised income taxes through inaction, but that’s what occurred. Kansans will pay more to the Kansas government this year–estimated to be about $210 million — so lawmakers can spend more.
The attempt to return the windfall to Kansans who earned it failed in a 59-59 tie on the final day of the 2018 session. There may have been an effort by those who wanted more money to spend to run out the legislative clock, but they received a handy assist from a number of lawmakers who conveniently dodged the vote by their absence.
Seven lawmakers, including Reps. Steven Alford, R-Ulysses; John Barker, R-Abilene; J.R. Claeys, R-Salina; Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita; Larry Hibbard, R-Toronto; Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park; and Scott Schwab, R-Olathe; didn’t cast votes on the federal windfall, because they were absent.