Opinion: March Madness comes to Statehouse

This past Wednesday started off pretty much like any other mid-March weekday, as I perused Twitter and Facebook, did some editing and planned where I’d watch the Jayhawks play their first-round game in the NCAA Tournament.

But then on my Twitter feed came a flurry of tweets: A coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats was attempting to move Medicaid expansion onto the House floor, to pass Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposal. Whoa! For a legislative geek like me this was the equivalent of a potential miracle upset in first-round NCAA game. You can’t quite believe that the underdogs will pull it off, and you’ve got to keep watching.

So it went on Wednesday afternoon. Like many upsets, the real drama came early, as the insurgent forces leapt into an insurmountable lead in the early stages of the contest. As I watched on a YouTube channel, the House upstarts, led by Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, stole the legislative ball from the Republican leadership with a “gut-and-go” maneuver, which substituted Medicaid expansion into another, slightly related bill.

Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, and his fellow leaders, fresh from their raucous Topeka White Linen restaurant team-building exercise, sought a referees’ ruling that the amendment was not germane and that they should get the ball back, so as to win the game. The Rules Committee chair, appointed by the leaders, conveniently agreed with the House speaker. Bill Self and Bruce Weber surely envied such a cozy arrangement.

Then came the real drama. Rep. Wolfe and teammates, without an actual coach, appealed this ruling. Right there, in the early afternoon, came the turning point. On a 62-55 vote the underdog challengers overturned the ruling and surged into the lead; after that, if this gritty band could maintain their majority on the floor, they could pass Medicaid expansion.

There is no shot clock in this legislative game, and the rest of the afternoon saw the favored leadership team desperately try to break apart the expansion coalition. After a lengthy halftime break, which allowed for some strategizing, the game continued in the late afternoon. The leadership Republicans desperately offered amendment after amendment: on costs, on abortion, on Planned Parenthood. Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, a wily veteran, played the point guard role, probing for weaknesses.

The insurgent coalition bent a bit, but their majority did not come close — not close — to breaking. After an hour or so of delaying tactics, the underdogs ran out the clock by simply holding onto the legislative ball. In the end, by a solid 70-55 margin, they prevailed on the bill, sending it to the next round in the Kansas Senate.

I’ve closely watched the Kansas Legislature for more than 30 years, and I can remember few more impressive performances. The challenging coalition did exactly what it needed to. It pounced on the loose ball of a broadly related bill, which opened the door to the “gut-and-go” maneuver. It then ran up a lead with a key vote on the germaneness rule, which allowed their efforts to proceed.

And then this group — which always knew it had the votes to win on the floor — beat back a series of amendments designed to kill the bill.

High drama and an impressive performance on a March afternoon. Of course, there will be another game in the Kansas Senate, where its conservative Republican leaders will once again seek to deny a majority what should be their rightful victory. But that’s another day’s contest. For now, we should savor the incredible performance we just witnessed.

— Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.


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