Jim Denning is in a tough spot.
By saying this, let the reader not get the impression that I feel in any way sorry for him. Denning, along with Susan Wagle and Dan Hawkins, squashed Medicaid Expansion this year solely through the use of McConnell-esque power tactics. Sympathy is not owed him. But he is in a difficult situation.
To recap: leadership in both the Kansas House (Majority Leader Hawkins and Speaker Ron Ryckman) and Senate (Senate President Wagle and Majority Leader Denning) refused to give Medicaid Expansion so much as a hearing, despite the fact that a clear majority of legislators wanted it, and the new governor would have signed it, and in fact made it one of her highest priorities for the legislative year. No hearings, no floor action, and in fact bills that might have been “germane” were also kept off the floor, to prevent them from being amended to include Expansion.
In the House, a confluence of circumstances (not least that much (most?) of the Republican caucus despises Dan Hawkins) led to a bill that was ruled not germane by the Rules Committee being stripped and amended as a Medicaid Expansion bill. It required a supermajority to do this and that, of course, required a significant number of Republicans. But, said Republicans were brave enough to pass a bill, but not brave enough to put it in a Senate shell, which would have prevented further interference by Denning and Wagle by allowing the Senate to pass Expansion by a simple majority vote.
And there the matter stood, until the veto session, the last few days of the legislative session in late April and early May. On the first day of veto session the Senate took up a procedural bill to force Expansion onto the floor over the obstruction of leadership, which failed by one vote. (Republican moderates, particularly in the Senate, are usually not willing to vote against leadership on procedural motions, not least because leadership can take their chairmanships away at will.)
But that’s not all! In the last hours of the session, when the House had to pass a budget (its only constitutional obligation), a group of moderate Republicans banded together to vote against the budget, holding it hostage until the Senate took up Medicaid Expansion. It wasn’t really much of a position (the House has no influence over the Senate) and it collapsed relatively quickly, but not before Denning promised ringleader Rep. Don Hineman that a committee would develop an Expansion bill during the interim (the rest of the year when the legislature isn’t in session) and that it would be the first item on next year’s agenda. What exactly Denning promised Hineman was a matter of some dispute, as I’ll discuss shortly.
So what this meant was that the Republican caucuses in both chambers were in a very lightly covered, if not open, state of rebellion, and that leadership’s opposition to expansion was blowing up in their proverbial faces.
And thus we get to Denning’s tight spot. He managed to squash Expansion for the year, but just barely. Susan Wagle has her eye on the US Senate race next year and believes her best chance to get there is by being the Koch candidate, and the best way to do that is by killing Medicaid Expansion. But Denning represents a district that is trending Democratic and that positively wants Expansion, and he faces an election next year against a strong candidate, Rep. Cindy Holscher. And he is ambitious, wanting to be Senate President and, if he had his way, governor.
(And then there were all those protesters calling Denning out by name and canvassing in his neighborhood and picketing his workplace, and he sure as heck wasn’t expecting that.)
So at this point Denning needs something he can call Medicaid Expansion, and to convince enough Republicans to support it, while not alienating Wagle or the Kochfrastructure, who remain about the only people in the state who don’t support Expansion, while also convincing the public (especially voters in his district) that he acted in good faith. A tough spot indeed.
There are two other things to know about Denning: first, he likes to seem like the adult in the room. Towards the end of the session he started to say, about expansion, “If you want it bad, you’ll get it bad,” meaning that passing what had been passed by the House (and more or less the same two years ago) was “bad,” and that if you just left things to him you’d get a good bill – more on what he thinks a good bill would be in a minute. He’s invested in you thinking that he’s playing three-dimensional chess and that everything is going according to plan, as opposed to thinking that he lost control of his caucus and needs to find a way to CYA ASAP (CHA, I guess).
And the second thing is that his instincts are not really that good. Let me give you a non-Medicaid example: a huge priority among the ultra-cons has been getting the state Supreme Court of out school finance cases. They tried several years ago to oust the justices in a retention election, which failed, and they are constantly talking about a constitutional amendment to take out the clause in the state constitution giving the court jurisdiction over school finance cases. Anyway, in 2018, Colyer’s year in office, the legislature had to pass another school finance bill, maddeningly (to the cons) to satisfy a decision of the state Supreme Court. Denning strategized that if he put off the funding bill long enough he could foment a crisis in which he could trade funding for the constitutional amendment. When the moment came and he floated the balloon it was shot down with such vehemence (within, like, hours) that he had to apologize. He could not possibly have read the room more wrongly. So he’s definitely not playing 3D chess.
Anyway, back to Expansion. Hineman thought that Denning had promised him a joint committee (House and Senate) to consider Expansion in the interim but Denning said only a Senate committee would do it. That pissed off Hineman, which may or may not end up being important. During the session Expansion proponents thought it was just as well if the Senate health committee didn’t give the bill a hearing because the committee was so stacked with opponents that they might just vote kill the bill right there, in committee. And that’s who Denning wants to have develop his bill.
But more importantly, whatever Denning and the Senate committee will attempt to pass off as “Medicaid expansion” will likely be that in name only. The likely model is the Utah plan, which limits Medicaid expansion to 100% of poverty (as opposed to 138%, which is the ACA standard), imposes caps on both spending on individuals and overall state spending, and includes such long-time conservative chestnuts as work requirements (already struck down by the courts in other states for knocking too many people – like, tens of thousands – out of the program).
Kansas is notoriously niggardly when it comes to government assistance to individuals; our current Medicaid program is among the most limited in the country and of course we passed very restrictive welfare reform which basically killed TANF in the state (which will be the topic of my next post). So Denning no doubt thinks that he’s on solid precedent in terms of Kansas policy and Republican priority.
Some of these policies, such as work requirements and the 100%-of-poverty limit, are non-starters. We may end up in a situation that a kangaroo committee made up of people who don’t want Medicaid expanded passes an unacceptable bill. In such a circumstance Denning assumes a) that the Kochfrastucture will accept “expansion” as long as it has the restrictive elements and b) that Republicans, however moderate, will fall into line, choosing loyalty to Republican policy and leadership over whatever it is the governor and advocates want in an Expansion bill. I believe that a combination of Denning’s poor strategic sense and the fact that he rather gratuitously stuck it to House moderates during the budget showdown will mean he’s wrong on that. But time will tell.
The cynical part of me thinks that if the legislature as a whole ends up voting down a bad Expansion bill, or worse, if they force Gov. Kelly to veto it, leadership won’t care – “Whelp, we tried” – when in reality they never wanted it anyway. Having it fail and being able to blame someone else (especially if that someone else is the governor) would be a win-win for them. I wouldn’t want to be Denning going into an election in 2020 if that’s the way it turns out, but no doubt he thinks he can message that, being the adult in the room and all.
In the meantime, it’s very important for advocates to hold to three points -- these are non-negotiables:
- Medicaid Expansion must be 138% of poverty and contain no conservative social experimentation such as work requirements.
- The committee process that develops the bill must be transparent and hold legitimate hearings, not a “roundtable” like those held in the House committee this year. When we had hearings in previous years in the Senate committee it was like 100 proponents and 4 opponents (all representatives of the Kochfrastructure in one of its guises); when House Health Committee chair Landwehr held her dog-and-pony show this year it was one proponent to one opponent, and that’s not acceptable.
- Anyone who votes for a bad bill will be held accountable. You won’t be able to hide behind the words “Medicaid expansion” to pass any old piece of garbage, as Jim Denning wants to do.
Denning wants to take control of the messaging and make himself appear like a good-faith actor – which he isn’t. It is very important that this whole strategy be nipped in the very small bud, and you can be sure that many of us will be there to make sure it is.