Medicaid expansion supporters burst into chants and song during Senate proceedings Wednesday morning, bringing the chamber to a halt.
The Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan, of Topeka, and eight others were apprehended after about 20 minutes of protesting. News reporters were ordered to leave before the arrests under threats from the Senate president’s staff of losing access to future Senate proceedings.
Oglesby-Dunegan launched the demonstration by standing up in the gallery above the Senate floor and shouting down GOP leadership for their refusal to allow a vote this year on the extension of KanCare services, as Medicaid is known in Kansas, to 130,000 low-income adults and children.
“Hear our prayer,” Oglesby-Dunegan yelled. “We want health care.”
Statehouse security staff asked Oglesby-Dunegan to leave, but she refused — demanding arrest or, in the alternative, passage of Medicaid expansion.
Senate leadership chose to gavel out while Capitol police summoned backup. Other protesters in the gallery joined Oglesby-Dunegan in song.
“There is more love somewhere,” they sang. “I’m going to keep on ’til I find it cause it certainly ain’t here.”
Senate President Susan Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning stiff-armed attempts to advance Medicaid expansion legislation this year, preferring to construct their own plan before lawmakers return next year. Denning has promised to have a vote on a new Medicaid expansion bill in January.
The protesters shouted that hundreds of Kansans will die without expanded health care coverage this year.
“This is what happens when you stifle debate, when you don’t have an opportunity to bring Medicaid expansion to the floor of the senate and at least have a debate,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat from Topeka. “This is what happens. You think you’re going to silence people, and it just doesn’t work. They want their voices heard.”
Wagle aide Harrison Hems and a Capitol police officer ordered news reporters to leave the floor about 20 minutes into the demonstration. When reporters declined, Hems threatened to revoke their floor passes. Lawmakers and legislative staff were allowed to remain.
“This is a public space, isn’t it?” a reporter asked. “This is the people’s house.”
“As far as I know,” the officer replied, “this is the Senate’s house.”
Hems said he wanted to evict news reporters because they were giving an audience to the protesters.
“I’m just telling you it’s a privilege to have a press pass, to be on the floor, to document,” Hems said. “When I’m trying to get people out to restore order to the chamber so we can conduct our business and you guys just sit there with a camera in their face and give them an audience, that makes my job incredibly difficult. I’m not trying to silence the press.”
After news reporters were out of the chamber, police removed the protesters from the gallery and whisked them into a conference room, where they could remain out of sight. Wagle said the protesters were cited with misdemeanor disorderly conduct.
The Senate president ordered the gallery closed, shutting off the only area where the public is allowed to view Senate proceedings.
“We have silenced protesters who violated the law through disorderly misconduct and who interrupted our proceedings,” Wagle said. “We are elected by the people to each have a voice in this chamber, and we should not be disturbed. That’s why the gallery was closed.”
She later reopened the gallery after receiving word that the protesters had left the Statehouse. By that time, the Senate proceedings had been closed to the public for more than 20 minutes.
The Kansas Sunshine Coalition sent a formal complaint to Attorney General Derek Schmidt, objecting to the removal of news media and clearing of the gallery. The coalition said the unprecedented moves violate the chamber’s rules and the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
“This is unconscionable and cannot, and shall not, be tolerated,” said Ron Keefover, coalition president. “We are urging your investigation and speedy resolution of this matter, including a preliminary restraint, which may be achieved in a consent order, so that it may not recur now or in the future as your office resolves this complaint.”