By John Celock
The Kansas Senate Tuesday revived legislation that would set up savings accounts for children with disabilities days after the bill died in a state House committee after a Democratic lawmaker tried to attach Medicaid expansion to the proposal.
The Senate adopted an amendment from Sen. Greg Smith (R-Olathe) to place an amendment creating state level tax-free bank accounts under the federal Achieving a Better Life Experience Act to legislation covering several other banking topics. The ABLE Act had previously passed the House Children and Seniors Committee but died in that committee last week when Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita) first tried to attach the Medicaid expansion bill to it and then gut the ABLE Act and replace it with the Medicaid bill. Smith said that he wanted to bring the ABLE Act – proposed by state Treasurer Ron Estes (R) and Rep. Erin Davis (R-Olathe) – back to life.
“Just seems like the right thing to do to break the cycle of dependency and allow for some independence,” Smith told The Celock Report after the Senate passed his amendment.
The federal ABLE Act allows for families to set up savings accounts with up to $14,000 a year in deposits for future expenses without a penalty for other programs, including Medicaid and Social Security later in life. Kansas could be one of the first states in the country to set up the state level account program after President Barack Obama signed the federal legislation last year. Estes praised senators for reviving ABLE.
“I couldn’t be happier to see the Senate give the Kansas ABLE Act new life especially after the actions of Representative Jim Ward last week in the House Children and Seniors Committee,” Estes said in a statement following the vote. “The ABLE Act would give the opportunity for thousands of Kansas families to save for their loved ones with disabilities. I would encourage all lawmakers to put politics aside and pass this bill that allows families to take financial responsibility for themselves.”
Under the terms of the federal ABLE Act money deposited into the savings accounts by family and friends would not count toward federal requirements limiting how much an individual can have in their name to qualify for Medicaid and Social Security benefits. Current federal limits place that amount at $2,000. The accounts would be able to provide additional income for a person with disabilities throughout their lifetime. If the account were above $100,000 in assets, a person’s federal benefits would be suspended while the account was above that amount but the individual would be able to reclaim the benefits when the amount dropped below $100,000.
While the federal law allows for ABLE, states have to pass legislation enacting the federal law in their states.
Tuesday’s actions come less than a week after ABLE appeared dead with Estes and Davis accusing Ward of killing it while Ward placed the blame with Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives. Ward, who has made the Medicaid expansion his signature issue this year, made the amendment while serving one day as a substitute member of the Children and Seniors Committee. No vote was held on ABLE in the committee after Ward made his proposals.
Ward told The Celock Report that he was actually planning to save ABLE and not kill it, while Davis, a member of the Children and Seniors Committee, told a different story.
“The disability community has worked tirelessly on developing this policy for the last eight years and when I introduced it in January, I was hopeful Kansas would be among the first states to put it into law,” Davis told The Celock Report about last week’s meeting. “Unfortunately, instead of helping to be part of a solution for the disability community, Representative Ward jeopardized the legislation for the sake of playing political games, even though Medicaid expansion hearings were occurring in another committee on the very same day.”
Davis was referencing two days of Medicaid expansion hearings held by the House Health and Human Services Committee last week. The hearings were held after Ward attempted to attach Medicaid expansion in a floor amendment to a bill allowing for the state’s Medicaid program to reimburse hospitals for donor breast milk for children in the NICU. Ward withdrew the amendment after he was promised the Health Committee hearings.
The Children and Seniors Committee had passed ABLE in early February but the bill did not receive a floor vote that month. When the bill did not receive a vote before the date for most House legislation to move out of the House and move to the Senate at the end of February, House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) temporarily assigned the bill to the House Appropriations Committee. Merrick’s move – known as “blessing a bill” – is a parliamentary procedure where he can keep legislation alive for the current year by having it sit – even temporarily – in an “exempt committee” where the House can still send it to the Senate this year. Merrick then reassigned the bill to the Children and Seniors Committee, which could then move it back to the full House.
With no more Children and Seniors Committee meetings scheduled following last Thursday, few avenues were available to ABLE supporters this year to pass the legislation. One of those was the Senate amendment process. Under Kansas legislative rules, since the bill ABLE is now a part of has already passed the House, the House can approve the bill in an up or down vote but amendments would not be allowed from the floor. If the House does not concur with the Senate amendments – there were others outside of ABLE – a joint conference committee will develop a final bill, which could include ABLE.
Estes cited Merrick’s “blessing” of ABLE as part of his confidence the bill could pass this year. He assigned blame to Ward.
“Representative Ward wanted to propose Medicaid expansion,” Estes told The Celock Report in an interview last week. “My understanding was when he could not amend the bill he moved to strike it, which would kill it.”
Ward disagrees with those who say he killed the bill. He said that he supports the ABLE Act but wanted to move forward on the Medicaid expansion. He instead blamed Estes for what he said was Estes not understanding the process and said that GOP leaders could have passed ABLE in February.
“I will give Estes the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t understand the process,” Ward told The Celock Report. “His bill isn’t being worked because of my amendment, it’s because the leadership of the GOP doesn’t want it. I don’t apologize for trying to get 150,000-160,000 Kansans health insurance and get our hospitals money.”
Ward said that he was told he could not attach Medicaid to ABLE due to germaneness rules. He said that he moved to gut the ABLE Act and replace it with Medicaid expansion because he wanted to get the issue to the full House.
“I wish the speaker had run the ABLE act in February when it got out of committee. I am not against the ABLE Act. I also wish the speaker would let the process work and let us have an up and down vote on Medicaid,” Ward said. “With this speaker he is very obstructionist on things he doesn’t support. I am not the only one trying to find vehicles to get good ideas before the House.”
Ward said that he had plans after gutting ABLE in the Children and Seniors Committee to have another Democrat attach ABLE as an amendment to a relevant bill in the House Financial Institutions Committee. He said he was told that the other bill could not be amended because Merrick did not want ABLE to reach the House floor.
Merrick has not made a public announcement on ABLE but his decision to “bless” the bill is interpreted by legislative observers as an indication of support since not all bills are “blessed. Merrick’s spokeswoman did not respond to a question regarding ABLE specifically but said in terms of Medicaid that Merrick had only told Ward that the Health Committee would hold hearings on the issue.
Davis said that Ward never told her of plans to resurrect ABLE in the Financial Institutions Committee when he made the amendments in the Children and Seniors Committee. She also said that Merrick has been supportive of ABLE.
“I’ve had numerous conversations with the speaker and his office about the ABLE Act,” Davis told The Celock Report. “In each of these conversations, he has been supportive of the ABLE Act. I’ve not had any conversations with the speaker nor his office requesting to attach ABLE to a financial institutions bill.”
Estes stressed that he wants to see ABLE reach Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) desk in order to take care of children in the state. He said that should be the focus and vowed to continue to work on the bill this year and if necessary in future years.
“The value of the ABLE accounts is it allows parents, family members and friends to support children. Our current Social Security and Medicaid policies penalize those who save money on their own. One thing we hear from parents is the parents will get old and will not be able to care for their children and want to,” Estes told The Celock Report. “We are going to continue to work to get this bill passed. It is a good way to help thousands of folks all over Kansas.”