Kansas lawmakers kicked off their 2016 session Monday, facing a rebuke from a presidential candidate and wading into a controversy about whether same-sex couples should be foster care parents.
New lawmakers, including two from Wichita, were sworn into office as the Legislature began the session facing questions about how to right the state’s finances and whether to expand Medicaid.
Here’s a round-up of events during lawmakers’ first day back in Topeka.
A few minutes before the Legislature officially began the session, a special committee on foster care approved a recommendation that “peer-reviewed, evidence-based factors regarding family structure be considered a high priority” in foster care placements.
Democrats on the committee saw the proposal as a subtle way of endorsing discrimination against same-sex foster care parents, a charge that Republicans did not entirely rebut.
“You say it’s discriminatory. … Is that discriminatory toward the child or toward the foster parent?” Rep. Willie Dove, R-Bonner Springs, said in response to a Democratic colleague’s complaint. “And if it’s discriminatory toward the foster parent, then I say, well, maybe it should be.” Dove said the only question the state should worry about is the best interest of the child.
Rep. Annie Tietze, D-Topeka, who voted against the measure, said the committee never actually defined what “best interest” means in these cases.
The committee heard testimony in November from Donald Paul Sullins, a sociologist and Catholic priest who has published a study saying that children raised by same-sex couples have emotional problems later in life. His research has been disputed by the American Psychological Association but has received praise from the Legislature.
“DCF (the Department for Children and Families) needs to go back and say, ‘Here’s the studies. Here’s the evidence. Here’s why we placed this child here,’ ” said Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, the committee’s chairman.
The recommendation comes as the DCF faces allegations that it has discriminated against same-sex couples in foster care and adoption cases. Another committee is expected to vote on a proposal to audit the agency later this week.
Hillary Clinton and Medicaid
The Democratic front-runner for president released a statement Monday morning calling on Kansas lawmakers and Gov. Sam Brownback to approve Medicaid expansion so an additional 150,000 Kansans can receive health coverage.
“It’s past time for Kansas to follow the lead of so many other states, put an end to partisan games and expand Medicaid,” Clinton said in a statement, contending that health care should be a right and that expanding Medicaid would give rural hospitals more resources.
Kansas is one of 20 states to resist expanding the program, which provides coverage for people with low incomes under the Affordable Care Act. Clinton’s prodding received a cold reception in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
“Hillary who?” House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, responded when told of Clinton’s statement.
Merrick released a longer statement later saying that “Kansans don’t trust Hillary Clinton, and her call to expand Medicaid makes Republicans even more skeptical of expanding Obamacare.”
Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee and opposes expansion, predicted that expansion supporters would be linked to Clinton in campaign fliers later this year when lawmakers stand for re-election.
However, Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, dismissed the idea that Clinton’s endorsement would scare off supporters of expansion.
“For the people who look at the facts about KanCare expansion, all of that is just noise,” Ward said. “For those people who are looking for excuses not to do it, who wouldn’t be a vote for it anyway, that’s another excuse not to do it.”
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, supports a “red state” model of expansion in which recipients would face a work requirement and pay premiums. He said Clinton’s endorsement would neither help nor hinder efforts to come up with a Kansas plan.
“We don’t need any more people from Washington, D.C., trying to tell us how to run health care in Kansas,” King said. “We need to take a Kansas approach to fixing our own problems that exist here.”
Two new representatives from Wichita were sworn in Monday, replacing House members who resigned between sessions.
Rep. Chuck Weber, R-Wichita, will represent District 85 in northeast Wichita and Sedgwick County. He replaces Steve Brunk, who took a job with the Kansas Family Policy Council.
“I have an overwhelming sense of being humbled by this process,” Weber said. “There’s a narrative out there if you read newspaper editorial boards … that somehow the people here are out for themselves or somehow looking to make a quick buck or have ulterior motives. I think there’s a very altruistic spirit here of people who want to do the best for Kansans, all Kansans.”
Despite his optimistic outlook, Weber said one thing he is not looking forward to about the session is being away from his family, explaining that he has a 19-year-old son with Down syndrome. “What I’m most dreading is not being at home and helping out Billy,” he said.
Also taking office Monday was Democratic Rep. Henry Helgerson, who previously served as a state representative from 1983 to 2000 and as a state senator from 2003 to 2004.
“The state has a lot more problems than it did when I left,” said Helgerson, who noted that he left office when the Capitol dome was still green and the state had a lot more in its coffers.
Helgerson cited the state’s shaky finances, education and the tension between the Legislature and courts as his top concerns. “The state’s never been in as crucial of a problem. … We have a constitutional crisis in courts, education. We gave away approximately a billion dollars in tax reductions,” he said.
Helgerson replaces Carolyn Bridges, D-Wichita, in District 83 in east Wichita and Eastborough.
Hawkins elected GOP caucus chairman
House Republicans elected Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, to serve as caucus chairman for the Kansas legislative session that began Monday.
He defeated Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, by a vote of 60-29.
Hawkins said he plans to organize weekly caucus meetings and to help facilitate communication between House leaders and rank-and-file members.
Hawkins replaces former Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, who left office last year to take a lobbying position with the National Rifle Association.
Contributing: Associated Press