KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Unable to maneuver through gridlock in the Kansas Legislature, Kansas House minority leaders will introduce constitutional amendments in hopes of putting the issues of Medicaid expansion and marijuana legalization to a statewide vote.
“Some people might think it’s kind of drastic to do a constitutional amendment, and it is,” Assistant House Democratic Leader Jason Probst said. “But the reason is that we’ve just had an absolute blockade.”
Voters in Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma have passed Medicaid expansion in recent years, but Republicans in Kansas have refused to even debate the issue in the legislature.
“We know that Kansas wants this,” Probst, who represents Hutchinson, said. “We know that they've wanted it for a long time. We have a lot of data that shows overwhelming support for it. Our rural hospitals have been screaming for it.
"We could have really used it during the pandemic, when a lot of people needed more health care and couldn’t afford it. The legislature and the Republican leadership has actively blocked it at every turn. I think it’s time to start turning these things over to Kansans and letting them decide.”
House Democratic Leader Tom Sawyer said Medicaid expansion would “provide about $1 billion” annually to Kansas.
“All of our surrounding states have Medicaid expansion,” Sawyer, who represents the Wichita area, said. “I think it’s time the voters have their say on it.”
It’s a similar story for marijuana reform.
Missouri and Oklahoma voters have passed medical marijuana laws, while the drug is legal in Colorado and has been decriminalized in Nebraska.
That leaves Kansas with some of the most strict marijuana laws in the U.S. despite growing public sentiment in favor of legalization.
“In my district, it’s been the No. 1 issue for about six or seven years now,” Sawyer said.
The Kansas House passed a medical marijuana bill in 2021, though it still prohibited smoking and vaping of marijuana, but it never gained traction in the Kansas Senate nor made it to Gov. Laura Kelly’s desk.
“I’m eager for people in Kansas to enjoy the same benefits that people have in other states,” Probst said. “We are an island. We are surrounded by states that provide for their residents the things that they want. Kansas, and the leadership in this building, has decided they know better than Kansans what they should have.”
House Democrats plan to continue to pursue more traditional legislative options for expanding Medicaid and legalizing marijuana, for both medical and recreational use, in Kansas, but the constitutional amendment path may offer new hope to move the issues forward.
The hope is that Republicans who have been reticent to buck party leadership and support Medicaid expansion or marijuana reform might be more willing to support giving the people of the state they represent the chance to weigh in on the issue.
The Democrats’ proposed amendments would not spell out any new policy, but it would make Medicaid expansion and/or marijuana reform a constitutional requirement, compelling legislative action on the issues.
If passed, voters in Kansas could have a chance to decide Medicaid expansion or marijuana legalization for themselves during the November general election.
Sawyer said it’s also possible the issue could be certified for the Aug. 2 primary, when an anti-abortion amendment already is scheduled for a vote.
“Certainly politically, it would make more sense or be more strategic to put it on the August primary,” Probst said.