By John Celock
A shake-up of Kansas House committees Wednesday evening removed three Republican Medicaid expansion supporters from the health panel, while two moderate Republican members were taken off the education panel.
The moves, which included removing a moderate Republican retired physician from the health committee, shored up support for House Speaker Ray Merrick’s (R-Stilwell) positions on education and Medicaid expansion. The moves come in the middle of the two-year House term and are being criticized for not being a common maneuver in Kansas.
Merrick confirmed in a statement that Medicaid expansion was top on the list for his decision to reshuffle the decks.
“Committee assignments are never easy. After much thought and discussion I believe that the following changes are in the best interests of our caucus and state,” Merrick said in the statement. “Kansans oppose expanding Obamacare, a program that has busted budget after budget in states that have expanded it. I will continue to fight to protect Kansans from the disastrous effects of Obamacare.”
The House Health and Human Services Committee held a series of hearings on the Medicaid expansion earlier this year. The hearings, which did not include a vote, came after Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita), the top Democrat on the health panel, offered a floor amendment on the Medicaid expansion. Ward pulled the amendment after Merrick promised the hearings. Several lawmakers have said the votes existed on the health committee to advance the Medicaid expansion before the reshuffle.
Rep. Barbara Bollier (R-Mission Hills), a moderate Republican and retired physician who was removed from the health panel, told The Celock Report that the committee handles a wide range of issues not just health. In addition to Bollier, Rep. Susan Concannon (R-Beloit), who has run a hospital foundation, and Rep. Don Hill (R-Emporia), a pharmacist, were removed from the health committee.
“Expertise has been removed from this committee. There is so much more in health care policy than Medicaid expansion,” Bollier said. “What shocks me is this takes precedence over good health care policy making.”
Hill and Concannon voiced similar sentiments about the work of the committee. Hill noted the committee has been wrestling with various public health issues, along with legislation related to nurses, dentists and prescription drug abuse.
Hill was also removed from his seat on the House Appropriations Committee. Bollier and Hill were both reassigned to the Elections Committee to replace health, while Concannon was placed on the General Government Budget Committee. Hill was placed on the Pensions and Benefits Committee in lieu of Appropriations. Concannon had been vice chairwoman of the health committee, but will not be gaining a vice chairmanship on any of her other committees going forward.
Hill said that he believed Merrick was trying to seat up his agenda for 2016 with the moves.
“The leadership are minimizing by these moves opportunities for mischief, they are minimizing that there would be detractors or serious questioning going on in the committee process,” he said. “Greasing the skids for the agenda that they are likely to pursue in terms of education reform, the budget and health care.”
In addition, Rep. Kevin Jones (R-Wellsville) was moved from the Health and Human Services Committee to the Education Committee. The move of Jones, a conservative, is viewed as a way to boost membership on the education panel and not to remove Jones from health.
Reps. Willie Dove (R-Bonner Springs), John Whitmer (R-Wichita) Randy Powell (R-Olathe) and Brett Hildabrand (R-Shawnee) were appointed to the health panel for the coming year. Dove will succeed Concannon as vice chairman, giving up his previous spot as vice chairman of the Children and Seniors Committee. Rep. Erin Davis (R-Olathe) becomes the new vice chairwoman of the children’s committee. Dove remains on the Children and Seniors Committee.
On the Education Committee, Reps. Diana Dierks (R-Salina) and John Ewy (R-Jetmore) were removed from the panel. Dierks was reassigned to the Elections Committee, while Ewy was placed on the Transportation Committee.
In addition to Jones, Reps. Kasha Kelley (R-Arkansas City) and Becky Hutchins (R-Holton) are joining the education panel. Kelley is a former education committee chairwoman who was removed from the panel a year ago after disagreements with Merrick. Kelley is leaving the Transportation Committee to return to education, while Hutchins is leaving the General Government Budget Committee.
In addition to these moves, Merrick moved Rep. Tom Sloan (R-Lawrence) from chairman of the Vision 2020 Committee to vice chairman of the panel and elevated Rep. Larry Campbell (R-Olathe) to chairman. Sloan, a moderate Republican, had held Medicaid expansion hearings in his committee earlier this year. The Vision 2020 panel is not known to be particularly powerful, routinely holding hearings into various subjects including health care, transportation and the crisis in the Ukraine.
In addition, Merrick merged the Insurance Committee and the Financial Institutions Committee into one panel named the Insurance and Financial Institutions Committee. Rep. Scott Schwab (R-Olathe), who headed the insurance panel, will chair the combined committee. Rep. Jan Pauls (R-Hutchinson) was placed on the House Rules and Journal Committee, replacing Rep. Rob Bruchman (R-Leawood). Pauls, the longest serving House member, was a member of the rules panel while a Democrat, but did not stay on the panel this year after becoming a Republican.
In addition to Hill, Rep. Virgil Peck (R-Tyro) was taken off the Appropriations Committee and moved to the Pensions and Benefits Committee. Rep. Marc Rhoades (R-Newton), a former appropriations chairman who had a 2014 falling out with GOP leaders over spending policy, returns to the committee. Peck unsuccessfully challenged Merrick for speaker last year and was removed as chairman of the House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee shortly after.
Rep. Greg Lewis (R-St. John), a moderate Republican who joined the House in the spring replacing former Rep. J. Basil Dannebohm (R-Ellinwood), was placed on the Vision 2020, Local Government and Agriculture and Natural Resources Committees.
This is not the first time that Merrick has removed dissenting members of his caucus from committee assignments. Last year, he removed Rep. Melissa Rooker (R-Fairway), a moderate Republican who opposed the speaker on education policy, from her seat on the Education Committee.
The Elections Committee is not viewed as being particularly active in the coming year, with many of the major election policy issues being tackled this past year. The General Government Budget Committee has handled much its major work this past year as well.
While uncommon in Kansas, the moves have been common in other states, but normally conducted at the beginning of a legislative session. In 2001, then New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side) blocked several lawmakers from assuming committee chairmanships or demoted them from chairmanships after they backed a coup against Silver. Silver had previously removed Democrat Michael Bragman (D-Syracuse), the coup leader, as majority leader.
In 2012, New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) worked to oust then Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) who was a frequent critic of Sweeney and Gov. Chris Christie (R) on pension policy. Buono, a former Senate budget committee chairwoman who did not seek reelection as majority leader, ended up chairing the legislative oversight committee, a fairly minor panel, for her final two years in office. Buono left the Senate in 2013 to unsuccessfully run for governor.
Sweeney also had demoted several lawmakers loyal to his predecessor, Democrat Dick Codey, from committee chairmanships in 2010 when he defeated Codey for the Senate presidency. Codey, a former governor, currently is the only Democratic senator serving not to hold a committee chairmanships or vice chairmanship.
In 2014, New Jersey Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) tried to cut the budgets of Republicans who had backed his opponent for minority leader. Kean instead found his own budget cut by Sweeney, who along with Christie, had backed ousting Kean from the leadership.
In 2012, Louisiana state Rep. Cameron Henry (R) and Joe Harrison (R) were removed from the House Appropriations Committee after clashing with Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) over budget policy. In 2010, then New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Chelsea) removed then Councilman Charles Barron (D-East New York), a frequent critic who had challenged Quinn for speaker, as higher education committee chairman.
Bollier said that she plans to remain involved in health policy. She said she understands it is Merrick’s “prerogative and I respect that. I don’t agree with him, but I respect it.” She said she is upset though for the impact on the state.
“I’ve been near tears, not for me but for my state,” she said. “I care so desperately for my state. We have so many health issues that will arise and need to be addressed.”