House Democrats want Kansas voters to decide on Medicaid expansion, marijuana legalization

By: - January 6, 2022 3:48 pm

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer and assistant minority leader Jason Probst announce three constitutional amendments to bring Medicaid expansion and recreational and medical marijuana to voters statewide. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A trio of newly proposed Kansas constitutional amendments would see the issues of Medicaid and marijuana put up to a public vote.

House Democrats announced Thursday three amendments to the state constitution to expand Medicaid, legalize medical marijuana and legalize recreational marijuana. They do not lay out the details but instruct the Legislature to create these policies by July 1, 2023.

Before going to a public vote, the measures will need support from two-thirds of the Kansas Legislature. House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer was hopeful that despite past impasses on these issues, allowing a vote could spark more conversation with Republicans.

“Republican leadership has actively blocked it with every turn,” the Wichita Democrat said. “It’s time to start turning these things over to Kansans and letting them decide. … It asks Kansans, ‘Do you want the legislature to do this? If they vote yes, then the Legislature will have to comply with the will of the voters.”

If passed, the measures would go to a public vote next November. Kansas is one of 12 states yet to expand Medicaid and three states yet to have legalized marijuana in some form.

Using public initiatives or amendments has become increasingly common in Republican-led states, such as Missouri with Medicaid expansion. Talks of expanding KanCare or legalizing some form of marijuana have moved at a snail’s pace for many years, so House Democrats are looking to accelerate matters.

In 2021, the Kansas House passed a medical marijuana bill, but the Senate chose not to act. Although it still could vote when legislators return to the capital Monday for the 2022 legislative session, Sawyer said this will serve as a safety net of sorts.

Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat, said Republicans have talked about the importance of Kansans voting on constitutional issues, so they ought to support bringing these amendments to a public vote.

“They’ve made it very clear over the last eight years they have zero interest in passing policy related to Medicaid expansion and very little interest in passing any sort of marijuana,” Probst said. “They do seem to like this idea, at least in talking, about handing things over to the voters and letting them decide.”

According to the 2020 Kansas Speaks Survey conducted by the Docking Institute at Fort Hays State University, 63.5% of Kansans support expanding Medicaid. Legalization of recreational marijuana for individuals 21 and older to allow state taxation was backed by 66.9% of respondents.

April Holman, executive director of Alliance for a Healthy Kansas, backed the effort and estimated the move to expand KanCare would provide health insurance to 165,000 Kansans in the Medicaid coverage gap. She added this would not be the only attempt at expanding Medicaid in 2022.

“Expanding KanCare will provide coverage to hardworking Kansans and result in much-needed investments in our communities to strengthen our hospitals, clinics and provider networks,” Holman said. “It will also protect and bring in thousands of jobs, keeping us competitive for local businesses and a good place to live, work and raise a family.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.

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