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Persuasive GOP messages in well-timed speeches fuel rare reversals on three Kansas House bills

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Persuasive GOP messages in well-timed speeches fuel rare reversals on three Kansas House bills

Feb 27, 2024 | 11:44 am ET
By Tim Carpenter
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Persuasive GOP messages in well-timed speeches fuel rare reversals on three Kansas House bills
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Beloit Republican Rep. Susan Concannon delivered a persuasive speech to the Kansas House to turn the tide against a bill tied to federal funding of rural hospitals. Her remarks prompted more than 50 members to change their votes and narrowly defeat the bill. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Legislation crafted to preemptively place Kansas in line for federal funding to reopen rural hospitals closed as far back as 2015 was sailing toward approval in the Kansas House with backing from 110 of 125 representatives.

Current federal law had limited this bailout to rural U.S. hospitals with less than 50 beds that were still operating in December 2020. However, Kansas lawmakers said they wanted to pass a Kansas bill in anticipation Congress would broaden eligibility to hospitals shuttered from January 2015 to December 2020.

If that occurred, Kansas might be able to snag enough federal money to reopen five shuttered hospitals. That might serve to rebut Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s argument for expanding Medicaid to 152,000 lower-income Kansans and securing hundreds of millions annually in federal funding for the state’s health system.

House Bill 2637 was headed for passage last week despite inclusion of an amendment establishing a 35-mile noncompete buffer around existing hospitals. Rep. Ron Bryce, a Republican representing Coffeyville, said the amendment was essential to shield a Coffeyville hospital that could close if forced to compete against an upstart medical facility qualifying for special funding as a “rural emergency hospital.”

“I know the intention of this bill is noble,” said Bryce, who is a physician. “Like many of you, I have a struggling rural hospital in my district. The area can’t sustain two hospitals. We need to support rural hospitals — not drive them out of businesses by creating a new federally funded competitor just down the road.”

Then, Beloit GOP Rep. Susan Concannon grabbed a microphone on the House floor and demonstrated the power of a singular voice. She said Bryce’s amendment would interfere with a plan to qualify closed Kansas hospitals for congressional funding. Under the federal program she hoped would be expanded, participating hospitals received an extra monthly payment of $276,000 and a medical rate 5% above the normal rate for Medicaid outpatient services.

“The amendment that was adopted to this bill was well-intentioned for a particular rural hospital situation,” Concannon said. With the amendment, she said, the bill “actually harms our rural Kansas hospitals by taking away the option of becoming a rural emergency hospital.”

Her remarks lit a fuse among Democrats and Republicans who had punched the button on their desk to cast a vote for the bill. Derby Republican Rep. Blake Carpenter, who was presiding in the House, leaned back in his chair and prepared for an onslaught of vote changes inspired by Concannon. Dozens raised a hand to signify their desire to flip.

“All right, here we go,” Carpenter said. “Rep. Winn votes no. Rep. Vic Miller votes no …. Any further changes? Seeing none, with 60 — Rep. Eplee votes no. Rep. Laura Williams votes no ….” It didn’t stop until 52 representatives changed their vote to take the bill from slam dunk to narrow defeat 58-62.

Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, secured first-round approval Tuesday of a $20 billion state government budget. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Republican from Bunker Hill, said a House bill expanding opportunities for teenagers with a farm license to drive to and from religious activities didn’t go far enough. His remarks initiated a wave of vote switching that killed the bill. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

Knowing the way

Rural House members sought to broaden a state law allowing Kansas teenagers living or employed on a farm to acquire a Class C driving permit to drive themselves to and from religious activities. The objective of House Bill 2523 was to alter state law so teens as young as 14 could drive from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. for events conducted by faith-based organizations.

The House Transportation Committee thought a 14-year-old was too young to carry that responsibility. The committee changed the bill to offer the religious observance alternative to 15-year-olds. Rep. Tory Marie Blew, R-Great Bend, proposed an amendment on the House floor to restore the exemption for 14-year-olds. She was rebuffed.

On final action in the House, it appeared the bill offering the driving benefit to 15-year-0lds would survive 74-46.

That’s when Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican and chairman of the influential House Appropriations Committee, put a foot down. He said denying 14-year-olds the option of driving to a church function was a slap in the face of Kansas farmers and ranchers.

“We vote against HB 2523, as currently written, due to the fact that this is viewed as being anti-agriculture,” he said. “We cannot support a bill that targets agriculture in Kansas.”

Carpenter, presiding over the House, began working through vote changes triggered by Waymaster. Twenty-five Republicans or Democrats jumped ship. At one point, Rep. Shannon Francis, R-Liberal, tried to save the bill.

“This is a simple bill,” Francis pleaded. “Farm permit kids cannot drive to and from religious activities now under the age of 16. This allowed them to drive to and from religious activities at the age of 15.”

In a showdown between Waymaster’s exclamation and Francis’ explanation, it was no contest.

“Are there any other changes to votes? Seeing none — Rep. Howerton votes no,” Carpenter said. “Any further changes. Okay. With 48 having voted in favor and 72 against the passage of HB 2523, the same not having received a constitutional majority, the bill is hereby declared lost.”

 

Persuasive GOP messages in well-timed speeches fuel rare reversals on three Kansas House bills
Rep. Kenny Titus, R-Manhattan, warned in a House floor speech a bill on the verge of passage improperly exempted the Kansas Corporation Commission from provisions of the Kansas Open Meetings Act. When the vote flipping ended, the bill had cratered. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

 

And, the trifecta

The initial House vote on House Bill 2591 was favorable. A majority was prepared to grant the Kansas Corporation Commission an exemption from the Kansas Open Meetings Act so the three commissioners could huddle behind closed doors before publicly issuing energy, utility and transportation industry rulings.

The KCC’s docket is full of decisions about electric, oil and natural gas regulation and included setting of prices for utility companies.

Andrew French, chairman of the commission, said there was a line of thought the KCC could produce more well-reasoned and independent decisions if commissioners could privately deliberate in a fashion akin to work of an appellate court. He said some people believed KCC staff wielded undue influence in the absence of private commissioner-to-commissioner conversations.

“I feel strongly that the public policy rationale for the Kansas open meetings law is not undermined by the specific exemption contemplated in the bill,” he said.

When the House took final action, the vote board showed support for French’s view. The tally was 67-53.

That was before Rep. Kenny Titus, a Manhattan Republican and an attorney, took center stage. He expressed apprehension the bill set a “dangerous precedent.”

“Duties of the KCC in regulating monopolies are unique among quasi-judicial bodies and the public deserves more — not less — transparency,” he said. “I fear that once transparency protections are removed this body will find it exceedingly difficult to restore them. The structure and function of the KCC may well need to be revamped, but exempting their most important work from the open meetings act is not an appropriate solution.”

The vote switching began with Democratic Rep. Stephanie Sawyer Clayton and didn’t stop until 30 shifted to no and one pivoted to yes. This bill met the fate of its two brethren. It went down in flames 38-82.