Why Kansas can’t replicate Maine’s Medicaid expansion vote

Supporters of Medicaid expansion celebrate their victory, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Portland, Maine. Maine voters say they want to join 31 other states in expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the signature health bill of former President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

People in Kansas who have been pushing to expand KanCare under the Affordable Care Act no doubt took notice Tuesday night when Maine became the first state in the union to settle that issue by popular vote, bypassing a Republican governor who has vetoed such a measure at least five times in the last six years.

After all, a 2016 “Kansas Speaks poll” conducted by Fort Hays State University showed pretty solid majorities in favor of extending the joint state-federal health care program to an estimated 150,000 people who could become eligible if Kansas took advantage of the federal law.

Similar efforts are also underway in conservative states like Utah and Idaho to get Medicaid expansion initiatives on their state ballots.

So naturally the question arises, is there a way to get a Medicaid expansion proposal onto a state ballot in Kansas?

The short answer to that question is no.

The process used in Maine and other states falls under the general heading of “initiatives and referendums,” two methods by which citizens can initiate legislation or constitutional amendments by petition, bypassing the regular legislative process.

Although those processes have been allowed in some New England towns since time immemorial, in most other places they are a byproduct of the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The idea was to put real political power directly in the hands of the people so that whenever legislatures or governors became too intransigent or too corrupt, “the people” could take matters into their own hands.

For whatever reason, though, despite the fact that Kansas was steeped in the Populist movement throughout the 1890s, initiatives and referendums were one part of the movement that just never took hold here.

The last governor who even tried to push through a constitutional amendment allowing initiatives and referendums was Democrat Joan Finney in the early 1990s, but that went nowhere fast.

In modern times, some states that allow initiatives and referendums have learned to regret it, in part because “the people” who try to use that process to their advantage tend to be the same well-heeled special interest groups who stalk the halls of statehouses but who use the public vote process when traditional legislative efforts are unsuccessful.

The general public, it turns out, is sometimes much more pliable and persuadable than legislative committees, which have the power to hold hearings, summon witnesses and compel the production of documents when debating complex issues.