Kansas governor not drawn to horse-trade compromise on school choice to win Medicaid expansion

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Senate president eager to pass private school funding, but a hard ‘no’ on Medicaid

TOPEKA — Top priorities of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Republican Senate President Ty Masterson collide in January when the Kansas Legislature convenes for the 2024 session.

Kelly left no doubt her central objective would be to convince at least 63 representatives and 21 senators — simple majorities of the House and Senate — to vote for passage of a bill expanding eligibility for government health benefits through Medicaid to 150,000 lower-income Kansans.

Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Dan Hawkins, the GOP centers of power in the Capitol, are committed to advancing a bill delivering millions in state tax dollars to private schools through scholarships, savings accounts or vouchers. Their numerical challenge is bigger than Kelly’s. They’ll likely need two-thirds majorities — 84 in the House, 27 in the Senate — to override a Kelly veto on private school funding.

They’ve been at this juncture before. The trio tangled last legislative session over Medicaid and private school funding before settling on stalemate.

Kelly said in an interview with Kansas Reflector that speculation she would be willing to secure Medicaid expansion by accepting some form of vouchers for private education was misplaced.

“I don’t horse trade,” she said. “Not on things that I have a very clear position on.”

The Legislature passed a bipartisan Medicaid expansion bill in 2017, but it was vetoed by GOP Gov. Sam Brownback. The House approved a bill in 2019, but it died in the Senate. GOP legislative leaders have stonewalled Medicaid expansion the past four sessions.

Kelly said extending Medicaid to the working poor would be of profound benefit to rural Kansans, but rural state legislators weren’t enthusiastic about school vouchers because most didn’t have a private school in their midst. She said states that approved vouchers or other mechanisms for investing in private education learned much of the money went to students already enrolled in those schools.

“There’s been so much more evidence coming from states that have done vouchers that these aren’t impacting at-risk kids,” Kelly said.

She said she didn’t believe the state should pour cash into private schools because “public dollars ought to go to public schools.”

Gov. Laura Kelly answers questions during a Dec. 19, 2023, interview.
 Gov. Laura Kelly answers questions during a Dec. 19, 2023, interview. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

School choice a key

Masterson, the Andover Republican leading the Senate, said school choice legislation was good public policy because it offered parents more options in the education of their children. Kansas does offer income tax credits for donations to scholarship funds used by academically at-risk students at private schools.

Masterson said Kansas should be among more than 30 states directing significant tax revenue to programs that paid tuition and expenses for students at private or home schools.

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“The one thing COVID did was expose a real need for school choice,” Masterson said on a talk show hosted by Hugh Hewitt. “You go to the inner cities, those are the ones who need choices. Quite frankly, wealthy people have choice. They can go spend their money on a private school of their choice. We’re trying to bring that to everyone to have the ability to have a choice in their education.”

Masterson, president of the American Legislative Exchange Council organization of state legislators dedicated to limited government, said 10 states implemented or expanded subsidies for private education in the past year.

During the 2023 session in Kansas, the House narrowly advanced a bill for the financial benefit of parochial and other private schools that was 20 votes shy of what would be needed to override a governor’s veto. The bill failed in the Senate. It was striking because both chambers had GOP supermajorities to mathematically thwart all of Kelly’s vetoes.

Masterson indicated Kelly was unlikely to make a deal with Republicans to accommodate conservatives’ desire for school choice reform in Kansas.

“We will try,” Masterson said. “I’m not overly optimistic in Kansas because our Democrat governor. We’d have to override vetoes and we’re right on the margins. One or two votes make a difference. We’ll be one of those states that try yet again. Hopefully, we’ll get there.”

Masterson said he remained steadfastly opposed to Kelly’s recommendation for Medicaid expansion and was convinced proponents exaggerated benefits of health insurance reform in Kansas. The federal government would pay 90% of expansion costs in Kansas, with the state picking up 10%. Kansas is among 10 states to refuse expansion of Medicaid since 2014, which so far has blocked infusion of $7 billion into Kansas’ health care system. All four surrounding states have accepted Medicaid expansion.

He said the influx of federal appropriations wouldn’t save financially imperiled rural hospitals in Kansas, but would improperly extend health care through Medicaid to “able-bodied adults” 19 and 64 years of age. He referred to Medicaid as welfare.

“We’re still battling,” Masterson said. “I 100% believe we’ll hold the line in Kansas.”

He said Kelly’s proposal for expansion of Medicaid released ahead of the Jan. 8 convening of the 2024 Legislature would dramatically deepen government entitlements for Kansas. It would pull working adults away from private health insurance into a government program designed to serve needs of vulnerable elderly, pregnant, disabled or impoverished people, he said.

“Instead of more government, Kansans need and deserve more personal choice and control,” Masterson said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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