Politics & Government

Kansas House Republicans pick conservative leader who opposes Medicaid expansion

Rep. Dan Hawkins after winning House Majority Leader on Monday.
Rep. Dan Hawkins after winning House Majority Leader on Monday. The Wichita Eagle

A staunch opponent of Medicaid expansion will lead Republicans in the Kansas House next year – a possible obstacle to Gov-elect Laura Kelly’s promise to change the program.

House Republicans elected Rep. Dan Hawkins as Majority Leader on Monday. The Wichita lawmaker has worked next to Kelly for years on health and welfare issues, but the two often hold sharply different views.

Meanwhile, Democrats chose Rep. Tom Sawyer, of Wichita, to serve as Minority Leader. The veteran lawmaker is known for his easygoing manner and ability to compromise.

The selection of Hawkins reflects a Republican caucus that shifted to the right in the fall’s elections.

“We still have to govern. It’s not just conservatives, moderates. It’s Republicans. And that’s the way we’ve got to look at it,” Hawkins said.

For Democrats, Sawyer contends he can forge a good working relationship with Republicans amid Kelly’s calls for renewed bipartisanship in the Statehouse.

Sawyer will be the third minority leader for House Democrats in the past six years. With a Democratic governor, working with Republicans will become even more important to passing legislation, he said.

“We want to work together with Republicans to pass good legislation for Kansas, rather than take the approach of just being bomb throwers and oppose everything,” Sawyer said.

Republicans and Democrats both rejected their past leadership, with current Majority Leader Don Hineman and Minority Leader Jim Ward losing bids to retain their positions. House Speaker Ron Ryckamn, an Olathe Republican, easily retained the speakership, however.

Hawkins defeated Hineman, 48-35. Sawyer defeated Ward, 24-16.

Hawkins has often focused on health and welfare issues since joining the Legislature in 2013. He currently chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, and currently chairs the KanCare Oversight Committee, which keeps tabs on the state’s Medicaid program.

Hawkins and Kelly have served together on those committees for years. They have appeared to have a collegial relationship, even though Hawkins opposes Medicaid expansion and Kelly opposes welfare eligibility restrictions supported by Hawkins.

Kelly made Medicaid expansion a central promise of her campaign. Since her election, she has said she plans to develop her own expansion plan using a task force.

“It’s not up to me to pass Medicaid expansion, it’s up to the Legislature to do that and I fully expect that they will address that issue this (next) year and if they put a bill on my desk and it does what it needs to do, I will sign it,” Kelly said in a recent interview.

In a statement Monday, Kelly congratulated the new legislative leaders and said she looks forward to working with them.

Kelly’s expectation that lawmakers will pass expansion will put her at odds with Hawkins. In the days following her election, Hawkins said it was a “foregone conclusion” that Medicaid expansion would go through.

But on Monday, he sounded a different note.

“I’ve not heard a whole clamoring in the body yet for a Medicaid expansion bill. I’ve heard a lot in the press, I’ve heard a lot from other places but in the people I’ve been talking to, I’ve not heard a lot of people say, ‘let’s go spend all of our money on Medicaid expansion,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins also said that if a Medicaid expansion bill comes forward, it may be more conservative because of the Republican caucus is now more conservative.

Medicaid is a federal program run by the states. States that expand eligibility up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line ($34,638 in annual income) receive additional funding from the federal government to help pay for the costs of expansion.

The federal government pays 90 percent of the cost, while the states pay 10 percent. Estimates vary, but expansion could cost Kansas an additional $26 million or more every year.

Supporters passed legislation in 2017 that was vetoed by then-Gov. Sam Brownback. They came up short when they tried to override the veto in the House, which requires two-thirds of the votes.

But supporters are hopeful that they can pass expansion in 2019 because this time they will need only a simple majority of votes.

Under Hawkins, conservative Republicans will exercise more influence in the House. Hineman, a moderate, was selected as majority leader in 2016 after the election of a wave of moderate Republicans were elected to the Legislature. Several of those moderate Republicans lost their bids for re-election this year.

Hineman said the Republican caucus shifted to the right. He also said the Democratic caucus moved to the left as well.

Still, Rep. Russ Jennings, a moderate Republican from Lakin, said neither conservative Republicans nor Democrats alone have enough votes to pass bills.

“I think moderate Republicans in this state will have some influence on policy. We may not hold leadership positions by title, but that title doesn’t mean you can’t be involved in leadership,” Jennings said.

With Sawyer as their leader, Democrats are turning to a lawmaker first elected in 1987 who has previously served as minority leader.

And while both Ward and Sawyer are veteran lawmakers, Ward has been more prone to fiery speeches and statements than Sawyer. Sawyer, by contrast, rarely gives impassioned floor speeches.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to help govern and to help pass laws that will greatly benefit Kansas,” Sawyer said. “But to do that we need to build coalitions with Republicans and work closely with Republicans.”

Ward declined to comment on the vote.

Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.