By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers are set Monday to vote on legislation to set up savings accounts for children with disabilities, just over a week after the bill had appeared dead following a Democratic attempt to attach Medicaid expansion to the proposal.
The state House of Representatives calendar for March 30 shows a bill containing the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act and other banking measures slated for a vote by the full House. The ABLE bill had passed a House committee earlier this year, but appeared dead last week when Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita) tried to amend the bill in the House Children and Seniors Committee to attach Medicaid expansion. The bill – pushed by Rep. Erin Davis (R-Olathe) and state Treasurer Ron Estes (R) – was resurrected Tuesday by the state Senate when it was attached to a related piece of banking legislation. If passed by the House, Kansas would be the eighth state where legislators have passed a state level ABLE Act.
“I am grateful to my Senate colleagues working on this legislation. It is great to have that teamwork to a good piece of legislation through,” Davis told The Celock Report. “it is a testament for our legislative body and that we want good pieces of legislation that helps Kansans to pass.”
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 $100,00. States are required to set up the state level accounts as part of the federal law.
Sara Hart Weir, the president of the National Down Syndrome Society, told The Celock Report that ABLE will help those with disabilities achieve a level of independence. She noted that it also provides families a peace of mind in being able to save.
“This is probably the most historic legislation before the disability community since the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Hart Weir said. “It puts the stake in the ground that those with disabilities to work and save their own money and not be dependent on public benefits. They can be independent and ABLE provides a vehicle to acquire assets over the longer term.”
Hart Weir said that both Louisiana and Massachusetts had state level ABLE Acts signed into law by the governor before President Barack Obama signed the federal law last year. She said that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) recently signed ABLE legislation in his state. She said that state level bills have passed the Legislature in West Virginia, Utah, North Dakota and Minnesota and are pending on the governors’ desks. She said that 29 other states have ABLE bills pending, while another seven states have bills in the drafting stage.
Hart Weir said that she sees the momentum from the federal level moving to the state level on ABLE. This includes support from advocates in the states.
The Kansas bill has had an up and down history since Davis introduced it earlier this year. The bill passed the House Children and Seniors Committee in February but did not come up for a vote prior to the late February deadline for most House bills to head to the Senate. At that time, House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) moved the bill to the Appropriations Committee, a parliamentary maneuver that allows the bill to remain alive if it sits – even for a short time – in an “exempt committee.” Bills that have a connection to an “exempt” panel can go from the House to Senate at any time. The process is known as “blessing of the bills.”
Merrick moved the bill back to the Children and Seniors Committee earlier this month, a move which set the stage for the panel to pass the bill at its last meeting of the year last week. Ward – serving a one-day stint as a substitute member of the panel – tried to attach his Medicaid expansion bill to the ABLE Act in committee and then tried to gut ABLE and replace it with Medicaid. The committee dropped ABLE following Ward’s proposals.
Ward has said that he supports ABLE and did not try to kill it. He told The Celock Report that his intent was to have ABLE be attached to a bill in the Financial Institutions Committee. He said that Democrats were informed that it could not be attached to the banking bill since Merrick did not want ABLE to come to the floor. Ward said that Merrick should have brought ABLE to the floor in February.
Davis said that in her conversations with Merrick and his staff, they expressed support for ABLE. Merrick’s decision to “bless” ABLE is seen by legislative observers as a show of support.
Ward has been pushing the Medicaid expansion all year and had tried to attach it to a bill relating to Medicaid reimbursements for donor breast milk earlier this year.
Sen. Greg Smith (R-Olathe) amended a banking bill on the Senate floor Tuesday to revive ABLE. Davis said that after ABLE’s death last week she was approached by senators who wanted to get the bill passed. The Senate voted 40-0 to approve ABLE.
“For it to become a political football that was really unfortunate,” Davis told The Celock Report. “It is a rare piece of legislation that we’ve done that both sides of the aisle can come together and do the right thing for a community that is often times the brunt of cuts. It was pretty exciting to see us come together and work for positive results.”
Since the original banking legislation had already passed the House, lawmakers on Monday will not be able to amend the bill. The House will only be able to vote to accept the Senate’s changes – including ABLE – or vote to send the bill to a conference committee. If the bill heads to a conference committee – which would likely consist of lawmakers in top slots on House and Senate banking panels – ABLE could be taken out of a final bill or remain in the final agreement.
The final agreement would then head back to the House and Senate for an up or down vote.
“The ABLE ACT will provide the opportunity for those with disabilities to have some independence and self reliance,” Davis said. “This is not partisan, this is the opportunity to do the right thing.”
Davis said that while she is optimistic for ABLE’s chances on the House floor Monday, citing the unanimous Senate support, she said she is not taking anything for granted.
“Until it is signed by the governor, I will keep working this really hard,” she said.