KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly proposed Monday that Kansas should legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes and use the revenues to expand Medicaid health care for low-income residents, a top priority that the GOP-controlled Legislature has blocked due to cost concerns.
"I cannot emphasize enough what this bill will allow our state to do for the people of Kansas," Kelly said at a news conference at Netsmart in Overland Park, where she made the announcement.
Although Kelly's unusual strategy seems to solve the money question when it comes to Medicaid, it figures to further rile conservatives who have resisted joining conservative neighbors Missouri and Oklahoma in allowing medical marijuana. Elections last year not only preserved Republican supermajorities in both chambers but left them more conservative.
Kelly has made expanding Medicaid for as many as 165,000 additional Kansas residents a top priority since becoming governor two years ago, but top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature have prevented its passage. Kelly also previously said she'd sign a medical marijuana bill but hadn't actively pushed the idea.
Kelly's proposed $19.9 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 assumes that Kansas expands Medicaid at the start of 2022, with the state spending $19 million and receiving $541 million in federal funds to cover the costs of the first half-year of the expanded program. Republicans have argued that expanding Medicaid is likely to cost Kansas far more, and GOP leaders have shown no interest in tackling the issue this year.
Kelly said Monday that she "can't imagine" any other reason for lawmakers to oppose the bill and said she hoped GOP leaders would "set aside the political party difference."
"We have just designed a bill that pays for itself and more," the governor said. "I think it eliminates the argument that we cannot afford it. There’s never been any other good argument against expansion."
Some lawmakers already are rejecting the governor's plan.
In a statement to 41 Action News, Rep. Ron Ryckman said it's "too early to talk about another Laura Kelly tax to expand government."
"We are still focused on finding answers to staggering levels of fraud in the unemployment program and finding ways to make sure Kansas schools and businesses don't have to pay for the governor's mistakes," Ryckman said.
House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins also rejected the plan.
"Gov. Kelly envisions a Kansas where you can choose not to work and the taxpayers will foot the bill for you to stay home and smoke supposedly medical marijuana," Hawkins sad in a statement. "While the governor is focused on high hopes and pipe dreams, Republicans continue working to create jobs and rebuild the once strong economy Gov. Kelly has destroyed."
Meanwhile, the Legislature has taken only relatively small steps toward legalizing medical marijuana even as most other states have done it. Missouri and Oklahoma used ballot initiatives to approve it in 2018, and other states — including Colorado — allow adult recreational use. Thirty-six states allow medical marijuana use and 15 allow recreational use by adults, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Kansas legislators in 2019 created an industrial hemp research and production program and approved a law to protect from prosecution people who use cannabidiol oils to treat children with debilitating medical conditions. Later that year, a legislative study committee recommended considering a measure like a 2016 Ohio law that allowed treatments for about 20 conditions if the marijuana cannot be smoked, but the idea didn't get traction last year.