By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers have become the eighth state Legislature in the nation to approve legislation that would allow for savings accounts for children with disabilities.
The state House of Representatives Wednesday voted 116-4 to approve an omnibus financial services bill that includes the creation of the state Achieving a Better Life Experience Act. Passage came weeks after the bill appeared dead in a House committee following an unsuccessful Democratic attempt to attach the Medicaid expansion to the bill. The House vote came after a debate where one Republican objected to ABLE, saying that it was “conceptual” in nature and questioning that it was a state enabling plan for federal legislation.
“We don’t know what the ramifications are for the state treasurer’s office,” House Financial Services Committee Chairman Pete DeGraaf (R-Mulvane) said of his reasons for opposing ABLE. “We don’t know the impact on tax returns.”
DeGraaf indicated support for other parts of the bill.
DeGraaf said that he wanted to see further study of ABLE prior to legislative approval of the bill. He noted that the bill would be the state approving a federal program. A federal level ABLE bill was signed by President Barack Obama in November of last year, but the legislation needs approval from state governments in order to take effect in each state. The program is similar to the 529 college savings programs that were authorized by the federal government and then enacted by state governments. In Kansas the state treasurer’s office oversees the 529 college savings program.
The Kansas bill was pushed by Rep. Erin Davis (R-Olathe) and Treasurer Ron Estes (R). Davis took to the floor during Wednesday’s debate to clarify the role of the state and to say that the ABLE Act is not part of the federal health insurance law, which it was compared to as a state level enactment of a federal program.
“This has nothing to do with Obamacare,” Davis said. “This is an enabling act. This is a vote to the right thing for the right reasons.”
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. Those with the accounts under $100,000 would be eligible for Medicaid and Social Security benefits. Those who have accounts that are over $100,000 would see the benefits temporarily suspended while over the limit but would be able to regain the federal benefits if the account falls below $100,000. States are required to set up the state level accounts as part of the federal law.
State ABLE bills have been signed into law in Massachusetts, Virginia and Louisiana and have been sent to the governor in four other states.
DeGraaf said one of his main concerns was the fact that ABLE was tucked into a larger financial institutions bill that had changed to encompass four separate bills. The parliamentary tactic is common in Kansas towards the end of the legislative session in order to push through legislation.
Reps. Dick Jones (R-Topeka), Kevin Jones (R-Wellsville) and Virgil Peck (R-Tyro) joined DeGraaf in voting against the omnibus legislation that included ABLE. They did not indicate during the debate why they were opposing the overall bill.
ABLE’s inclusion by the state Senate into the Kansas Money Transmitter Act came about from a series of parliamentary maneuvers designed to resurrect the bill from the dead.
ABLE had passed out of the House Children and Seniors Committee in February but did not receive a vote by the full House by the late February deadline for most House bills to head to the Senate for consideration. Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) then moved the bill to the House Appropriations Committee, a maneuver where a bill can remain alive if it spends time in one of three “exempt” committees in the House. The process is known as the “blessing of the bills.”
The bill then moved back to the House Children and Seniors Committee last month, where the committee had to make one last vote to send it to the full House. At the committee’s last meeting of the legislative session last month, Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita) – serving a one day term as a substitute member of the committee – tried to amend the bill to attach his Medicaid expansion bill to ABLE, a move that was ruled not germane. Ward then attempted to gut ABLE and replace it with Medicaid expansion, a move that led the committee to drop the bill.
Ward insisted to The Celock Report last month that he was not trying to kill ABLE and had plans to have it attached to another bill in the Financial Institutions Committee, but was told the committee would not pass ABLE. He had suggested that Merrick did not want ABLE to reach the House floor. Davis has said that she has heard only positive comments about ABLE from Merrick and his staff. She also said that Ward had never briefed her of his plan. Legislative observers have noted that Merrick’s “blessing” of ABLE was a sign of support.
Ward did vote for ABLE Wednesday. He also tweeted that DeGraaf’s comments show that it was Republicans who wanted to kill ABLE.
The Senate placed ABLE into the money transmitter bill days after it died in the House, giving it a chance to pass.
Wednesday’s debate was largely supportive of ABLE. The debate centered solely on ABLE and not on the other bills in the package. ABLE was the only one of the four bills in the omnibus bill not to receive a full House vote before Wednesday.
“We passed it out of committee in a bipartisan effort. We worked with other disability programs and the treasurer’s office,” Rep. Ponka-We Victors (D-Wichita), the top Democrat on the Children and Seniors Committee, said on Wednesday. ”We want to implement something good here on the state level.”
Rep. John Rubin (R-Shawnee), who is an opponent of bundling multiple bills together, took to the floor to indicate that he supported it in this instance. He noted that three of the bills passed the full House and that ABLE had received a full vetting by the Children and Seniors Committee. He also said he personally backed ABLE.
Estes released a statement Wednesday applauding the House vote.
“I’m elated that we’ve successfully crossed this first milestone and look forward to seeing this initiative through to the finish line,” Estes said in the statement. “Passage of the Kansas ABLE Savings Program has opened the door for Kansans living with disabilities to take charge of their future.”
Davis reminded the House during the debate Wednesday that the bill would provide a “real opportunity” for Kansas to help those with disabilities. She said it would allow those with disabilities to have independent funds and earn income, while also being able to retain eligibility for federal benefits.
“For the first time every parent of children with disabilities will be able to put money into savings. If they still need money from Social Security disability they would be able to get it,” Davis said. “They will be able to pay for their own way. They will be able to get a full time job and earn money and get insurance on not be on Medicaid.”