Kansas lawmakers just dared Sam Brownback to veto Medicaid expansion

Bill heads to right-wing governor’s desk with wide bipartisan majorities — but not veto-proof ones.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) waves to conservative fans during the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) waves to conservative fans during the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

A bill to expand Medicaid eligibility under Obamacare passed the Kansas Senate on Tuesday morning, setting up a showdown with arch-conservative Gov. Sam Brownback (R).

Brownback is philosophically opposed to the expansion, which in-state analysts estimate would cover 150,000 currently uninsured people. But with the state’s budget in disastrous shape because of his “real, live experiment” with right-wing tax policy over the past several years, Republican allies have already begun to break stride with the governor.

Brownback has 10 days to decide what to do. His administration this week reiterated opposition to expanding the state’s Medicaid program, known as KanCare. But the governor himself has stayed mu, Alliance for a Healthy Kansas head David Jordan told ThinkProgress.

“His staff put out oppositional statements yesterday, but he wouldn’t answer the question himself as to what his action will be,” Jordan said.

“Hopefully the governor will recognize this is an opportunity to do the right thing,” he said. “Hopefully the governor will join us, join the other 16 Republican-led states that have expanded Medicaid and seen the law add to their state’s bottom line, be budget-positive, create tens of thousands of jobs and protect hospitals and patients.”

A veto would give the legislature 30 days to override the governor or accept his decision.

So far, though, Jordan’s coalition doesn’t quite have the votes to reverse the governor’s red pen. They would need to find three more House lawmakers and 2 more Senators among the holdouts who voted “no” even after months of public meetings, thousands of constituent visits, and supportive testimony from hospital administrators, Catholic bishops, and the state’s two largest Chambers of Commerce.


“I think it’s a tall task anytime you get down to trying to override a veto. But every challenge has been tall and we’ve met all of them,” Jordan said, noting the bipartisan success of the legislation already overcame opposition from key Republican leaders. “At the end of the day this is about doing what’s right for Kansans, and we’re going to keep working on members in the House and Senate who we need to override a potential veto.”

Brownback has reason to feel confident in vetoing the bill. He has already seen rebellious Republicans come up short of overturning his veto once this session, saving his cherished tax cut package from reforms aimed at patching the enormous budget hole it created.

Vetoing the KanCare bill isn’t risk-free. An override vote would be a sour note at the end of a long career in elected office. Brownback is reportedly first in line for a plum appointment in President Donald Trump’s international team that would send him back and forth to Rome over the coming years — and give him an escape hatch from the ongoing fiscal debacle he imposed on his state.

Signing the bill instead would help Brownback’s dismal economic record, as well as his constituents’ health, said Kansas Center for Equitable Growth head Heidi Holliday.


“There are hospitals around the state that have been closing, and expanding KanCare would help create jobs here in Kansas,” Holliday said. “Even the conservative estimates are between 3,500 to 4,500 new jobs from expansion.”

Those figures do not account for the general stabilizing effect that providing health insurance coverage has on private economic activity, by shoring up families’ financial security, and on state finances. “A lot of uninsured Kansans are using the emergency room for basic health care, and those costs are passed on to taxpayers,” Holiday said.

But Brownback has cut a stridently right-wing figure in American politics for decades, going back to this tenure in the U.S. Congress. It might be more painful to go along with a liberal entitlement policy than to end his tenure with back-to-back veto overrides — especially since his gubernatorial tenure was meant in part to rehab his political prospects after a failed 2008 presidential campaign.

Still, the governor was seen wandering the rotunda Tuesday morning speaking with constituents who support expansion, Jordan said.

However unlikely it might be for a dyed-in-the-wool opponent of government safety net programs to allow his legacy to be associated with taxpayer-backed health insurance, supporters of expanding KanCare aren’t giving up on changing Brownback’s mind.

“Stranger things have happened,” Jordan said, laughing. “I’m one to never say never.”