Votes on Medicaid, teacher tenure will test Democrats’, moderate Republicans’ strength

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

A series of votes Wednesday in the Kansas House is expected to give a clearer picture of the strength — or the limits — of a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans who are competing with conservatives for control over the direction of state policy on a wide range of issues.

That coalition, which many assumed gained significant numbers in the 2016 elections, first showed its strength last week with passage of a tax bill that would undo some of the signature tax cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback and his conservative allies championed in 2012 and 2013. That bill, which passed the House by a 76-48 margin, was delivered to Brownback Tuesday, but Brownback said Tuesday evening he would veto it.

The votes scheduled for Wednesday will show whether that coalition can hold together on other issues, specifically regarding expansion of the state’s Medicaid program and reinstating due process rights for K-12 public school teachers.

Both bills had been bottled up in committee and were in danger of dying for the session if not passed out of the House by Thursday, the so-called “turnaround” deadline for bills to pass out of the chamber where they originated.

The Medicaid expansion bill came up for a vote in the Health and Human Services Committee on Monday where it was tabled, on a 9-8 vote, until April 3, well past the turnaround deadline.

The bill to reinstate teacher tenure rights, which lawmakers repealed in 2014, was the subject of hearings in the House Education Committee, but Chairman Clay Aurand, R-Bellville, had refused to bring it up for a vote, saying he wanted instead for groups representing school boards and administrators to meet with teachers union officials to work out a compromise.

On Tuesday, House Democratic Leader Jim Ward of Wichita invoked a rarely-used rule that allows the full body to pull a bill out of committee despite the committee’s action.

Ward made the motion to invoke that rule Tuesday. A vote on the motion will take place Wednesday morning, and if it receives 70 votes — seven more than the simple majority required for regular motions — it will automatically be placed at the top of Wednesday’s debate calendar. From there, the bill would need only 63 votes to advance to final action and, next, to be passed and sent to the Senate.

“You all deserve a vote on Medicaid expansion,” Ward said in making his motion. “More importantly, the people of Kansas deserve a vote on Medicaid expansion. Every one of you knows as you campaigned across this state, that is a very important issue.”

The rule exists as a sort of check against the power of legislative leaders, but it has been used only rarely in the past because it requires members of the majority party to publicly defy their own leadership.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Republican from Mission Hills who supports expanding Medicaid, said she could not predict whether the motion would get the required 70 votes. But she did agree that Democrats and moderate Republicans are now in a position of strength.

“I think there’s an entirely different climate here this year in the wake of the changes on Election Day, for sure,” she said.

Rep. Monica Murnan, D-Pittsburg, said during committee debate Tuesday that Medicaid expansion was the No. 1 issue she heard about from voters during the campaign.

“This subject is, where I come from, probably different than where a lot of you on this committee come from. It’s a life-or-death situation,” she said. “It’s a big deal. I think it deserves the vote of the entire House. Let people talk it out.”

The bill on teacher tenure, also known as due process rights, would reinstate a law that conservatives repealed in 2014. That law, which had been on the books since the 1950s, ensured that teachers who had passed their three-year probationary period are entitled to a hearing before an independent hearing officer before they can be summarily fired or not renewed for the following year.

For conservatives, the tenure law had been an example of what they viewed as the oversized power and influence of teachers unions, and there had been attempts to repeal it or scale it back even before 2014.

Although the bill reinstating tenure rights had been stopped in committee by Aurand, Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, D-Prairie Village, took the language from the bill and offered it as an amendment onto a seemingly unrelated bill dealing with an obscure law called the Uniform Arbitration Code, part of the state’s laws on unfair trade and consumer protection, which governs when arbitration is used to settle consumer lending or contractual disputes.

Stogsdill called the repeal of tenure rights in 2014 “an egregious mistake that took place in the wee hours of the morning in April of 2014, on the second of two 22-hour days in this very chamber by a group of exhausted legislators.”

The language, which had never been considered in a House committee at that point, was added by a conference committee onto a school finance bill that was intended to respond to a Kansas Supreme Court order earlier that year. It was approved by the House by a single vote around 4 a.m. during the second of two back-to-back marathon sessions that lasted more than 20 hours each.

The move angered Democrats and moderate Republicans who viewed it at the time as a “poison pill” that was intended to make them vote against the bill so conservatives could claim credit for fixing the school funding law, an allegation that conservatives publicly denied, but the two factions have not had enough votes to reverse the action, until perhaps this year.

But Aurand argued that for years, he had heard complaints from school boards and administrators that the law did not work well and made it difficult for them to get rid of ineffective or substandard teachers.

“And that is why pressure built over the years and eventually came about with the change in the law a couple of years ago,” Aurand said.

Stogsdill, however, said the Kansas House is different today than it was in 2014.

“Today, this body is occupied by a great many new faces, elected by constituents who want change, who want laws that are made in the light of day and laws that support our teachers while (guaranteeing) the rights and obligations of our school boards,” he said.

Stogsdill’s amendment was added to the bill on a 66-59 vote. The House then voted to advance the amended bill toward a final action vote, which is scheduled for Wednesday.

Regardless of how the votes come out Wednesday, many Republicans are recognizing this year that the House is a very different chamber than it was a year ago.

“We’re seeing that on a number of issues,” said Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Assaria, who chairs the Taxation Committee. “We’re seeing what voters had to say in the last primary and general election.”