Two Kansas state senators who earlier this week jumped from Republican to Democratic ranks have been rewarded with choice committee assignments.
The assignments given to the former moderate Republicans, Sen. Barbara Bollier of Mission Hills and Sen. Dinah Sykes of Lenxa, make them key players on two of the most contentious issues awaiting the Legislature — school spending and Medicaid expansion.
Bollier is now the top Democrat on the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee. Before her party switch, she was the panel’s vice-chair. But Republican leaders stripped her of that rank last summer for endorsing a Democratic candidate for Congress.
“This isn’t about me, it’s about Kansans,” Bollier said. “I just want to get to work.”
Sykes is trading up on the Senate Education Committee. She’ll go from being a rank-and-file GOP member to the senior Democrat on the panel. That puts her in the thick of negotiations over how to end years of litigation over school funding.
“The opportunity to serve as the ranking minority on this committee will allow me to better represent my constituents and help shape legislation that moves through conference committees,” Sykes said in an email to the Kansas News Service.
Three-member conference committees work out differences between House and Senate versions of bills. As ranking Democrats on their respective committees, Sykes and Bollier will participate in those negotiations.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka teacher who had long served as the top Democrat on the education committee, stepped down to make way for Sykes.
“I’m willing to relinquish that position because I know the education issue is very, very important to Johnson County and to Sen. Sykes’ constituents,” Hensley said.
Last session, lawmakers approved a plan to put an additional $522 million into the school funding formula over five years. They believed at the time that would be enough to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court and end a lengthy court battle with school districts.
But the court ruled that the state needed to spend another $364 million to cover inflation.
When the 2019 session begins on Jan. 14, the debate will focus on whether the state can afford that. Some Republican leaders don’t think so.
“I don’t want to make a commitment the state can’t fulfill,” Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning said at a recent meeting with Johnson County educators, according to the Wichita Eagle.
Still, Hensley said he expects Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly to include the funding increase in her proposed budget.
“I believe the state can afford that,” Hensley said, noting that only about $300 million of the proposed increase would come out of the state’s general operating fund.
Money generated by a statewide property tax levy for schools would cover the rest, he said, citing an analysis done by the Kansas State Board of Education.
Attorneys for the school districts involved in the lawsuit have said the amount specified by the court would satisfy them.
Bollier will be a key player in the push to expand Medicaid to cover an additional 150,000 low-income, elderly and disabled Kansans.
“That is an absolute priority,” she said.
A coalition headed by the Kansas Hospital Association has been lobbying for expansion with little success since 2014. Lawmakers passed an expansion bill in 2017, but they fell a few votes short of overriding Republican and then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto.
Many Republican leaders remain opposed to expansion, but it’s a priority for Kelly. And that has expansion advocates cautiously optimistic heading into the session.
“It changes the landscape dramatically because you have a governor who will not only sign a bill, but who will actually be pushing for Medicaid expansion,” said Tom Bell, president and CEO of the hospital association.
There were few other changes in the makeup of Senate committees, other than the announcement that Gene Sullentrop, a conservative Republican from Wichita, will replace Vicki Schmidt as chair of the health committee. Schmidt, a moderate Republican from Topeka, was elected insurance commissioner in November.
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.
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