Politics & Government

Kansas Legislature reaches chaotic finish amid protests, first veto override of Kelly

Pro-Medicaid expansion demonstrators disrupt Kansas Senate

Demonstrators disrupted the Kansas Senate as lawmakers returned for its final day in session. GOP leaders had a chance to overrride Gov. Laura Kelly's tax and KPERS vetoes. (May 29, 2019)
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Demonstrators disrupted the Kansas Senate as lawmakers returned for its final day in session. GOP leaders had a chance to overrride Gov. Laura Kelly's tax and KPERS vetoes. (May 29, 2019)

The Kansas Legislature’s annual session came to a chaotic, divisive end Wednesday amid the removal of disruptive protestors and an override of Gov. Laura Kelly’s budget vetoes.

The final day of session is often a ceremonial affair. This time, it was anything but.

Police removed nine pro-Medicaid expansion protestors from the Senate after they began singing and shouting during debate. The demonstration brought the chamber to a halt as senators looked up at the extraordinary sight, but journalists and others were cleared from the floor before officers took action.

Lawmakers also overrode several spending items Kelly had vetoed, including a more than $50 million pension payment. But they failed to override her veto of tax legislation she said would have begun leading Kansas back to the budget turmoil of recent years.

The frantic day began as a lone protestor began singing in the Senate gallery as lawmakers debated the budget vetoes. Others soon joined in.

“Lord, hear our prayer, we need healthcare,” they chanted. “There is healthcare somewhere,” they sung.

The protestor who started the singing, Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka, said obstructionism by Republican leaders toward expansion is “over the top.”

“Too many people have had loved ones die because they haven’t had access to health insurance,” Oglesby-Dunegan said in an interview.

Medicaid expansion didn’t advance in the Legislature in 2019 despite intense pressure from Gov. Laura Kelly. Some lawmakers even temporarily held up passage of the state budget over the lack of a vote in the Senate.

Senate leaders have promised to look at the issue during the next few months, and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, has committed to allowing debate on a Medicaid bill when lawmakers return in January.

The pace has frustrated expansion supporters, triggering an escalating series of demonstrations at the Statehouse this spring. Protestors have previously unfurled banners and dumped thousands of fliers.

Wednesday’s protest was the most serious by far. Lawmakers and statehouse observers struggled to come up with previous examples of such a large disruption in the Senate producing arrests.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, called the demonstrations “pure obstructionism” that stifled debate.

“Legally protected peaceful protest is consistent with some of the best traditions of American dissent. But sadly, there was nothing peaceful about today’s events which follow a pattern we are seeing nationwide of the left’s mob mentality,” Wagle said in a statement.

Oglesby-Dunegan responded that “my obstruction didn’t cost anybody their lives. My obstruction cost the Senate 30 minutes of their time together.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the Senate should have debated expansion.

“This is exactly what takes place when you’re stifling debate on a very important issue that should have been heard in the Kansas Senate,” Hensley said.

Harrison Hems, Wagle’s chief of staff, said police had arrested nine people. Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. Adam Winters said nine people were removed, and one was cited on suspicion of interfering with public business in a public building. Winters said no one was taken into custody.

Oglesby-Dunegan said when police led the demonstrators out of the gallery, they were told they were under arrest, but that later they were told they were not under arrest and were allowed to leave. Oglesby-Dunegan confirmed she had been cited; she has a July 30 court date.

Before the removals, a police officer escorted journalists out of the chamber, preventing them from watching the removal of the protestors. Senate staff tried to clear other senators off the floor, too.

“I was asked by the Capitol Police to clear the floor,” Hems said. He told reporters after they were cleared that access to the Senate floor is a privilege, not a right.

Several news organizations protested the removal of the journalists. The Eagle and The Star sent a letter to Wagle criticizing the action.

“In closing, let me say that your actions today in censoring the Kansas press are not only unconstitutional, but beneath your office. Kansans deserve better,” Bernard Rhodes, an attorney for the newspapers, wrote.

The demonstration punctuated an already boisterous day.

Lawmakers overrode Kelly’s vetoes for the first time since she took office in January. They forced into law a $51 million payment to KPERS, the pension system for public employees, along with a handful of much smaller spending items.

“I think that’s what that vote represented: good policy prevailed,” House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said.

Kelly had said the state made its pension payment obligations for the year and that the payment was extra. Spokeswoman Ashley All said Kelly was disappointed the Legislature had failed to exercise fiscal restraint.

“Governor Kelly has a long, consistent record of supporting state employees, the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System, community mental health and public schools. The legislature added $182 million in additional spending this year – beyond what the governor recommended – while also attempting to recklessly cut taxes,” All said in a statement.

“The Governor’s efforts to trim spending would have helped ensure Kansas has the ability to address any unforeseen emergencies without cutting core services.”

But Republicans said the payment is needed to help strengthen KPERS, which only a few years ago was far less financially healthy.

Lawmakers failed in an effort to override Kelly’s veto of a tax bill that Republicans had been seeking since the session began. The bill would have cost the state about $90 million in revenue next year.

The bill was designed to hold down corporate tax bills and allow Kansas residents to itemize their state income taxes even if they don’t itemize on their federal taxes. The measure also contained a formula to lower the tax rate on food using increased revenues from internet sales.

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