New House leader to seek campus fix

? House Republicans on Monday elected as speaker conservative Melvin Neufeld, who said one of his top priorities will be addressing the issue of massive repairs at state universities.

“There’ll be a plan coming up that helps get things done,” Neufeld told reporters after his election to lead the House when the 2007 legislative session starts Jan. 8.

Higher education officials say the six public universities, including Kansas University, need $727 million to take care of a backlog of repairs and maintenance projects.

Neufeld, of Ingalls, declined to say how large of a plan he was contemplating. But he did say the proposal would not involve borrowing or a tax increase, indicating it likely would fall far short of the $727 million price tag.

“Whatever plan we come up with now will probably be like the highway plan where we designate exactly what projects get funded,” he said.

Neufeld also said the Legislature may look at increasing tuition for out-of-state students.

“Our in-state (students) pay a higher percentage compared to out-of-state tuition, compared to other states,” he said.

Neufeld then hurried off to a meeting with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

House GOP goes right

Monday’s election of Neufeld caps a long, colorful and controversial career in the House.

And even though the November election results produced a more moderate House, the Republican caucus went further to the right in selecting Neufeld, who was seen as the most conservative of the three speaker candidates, which included Mike O’Neal of Hutchinson and Kenny Wilk of Lansing.

The contest was to replace Doug Mays, of Topeka, who is retiring from the House.

Neufeld, a farmer, first was elected to the House in 1984. As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, he has become a knowledgeable and tough budget negotiator.

In 1994, Neufeld grabbed headlines when he was accused of blackmailing a legislator on a House vote by calling the legislator’s wife about allegations of sexual misconduct. Neufeld acknowledged making the call but said he wasn’t trying to blackmail anyone.

The case never went to trial because the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers have wide constitutional protections in what they can say about other legislators.

In recent years, Neufeld has fought Sebelius’ initiatives to increase higher education spending and expand health care.

Wins on second ballot

On Monday, Neufeld was portrayed by his supporters as a straight-shooter with invaluable institutional knowledge of state government.

“His yes means yes and his no means no,” said Rep. Arlen Siegfried, R-Olathe.

The speaker is selected by the majority party in secret ballot. All 78 House Republicans voted.

In the first round, Neufeld received 29 votes; Wilk had 25, and O’Neal, 24. In the second round, Neufeld defeated Wilk 47-31. He was then approved by acclamation.

His official designation as speaker will occur when the session starts.

The outcome is important to Kansans statewide because of the speaker’s power.

The speaker appoints committee chairmen and women and can in most cases kill or push through legislation that he feels strongly about. The office also helps controls the flow of bills, which can determine their outcome.

Neufeld said he hadn’t spoken with anyone about committee appointments.

Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, and chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said: “The newly elected officers say they want to bring the caucus together and advance good public policy. I certainly hope there is a role for my voice in that endeavor.”

The speaker also is part of the Statehouse leadership team, which includes Sebelius, a Democrat who easily won re-election last month, and Senate President Steve Morris, a moderate Republican who presides over a sharply divided caucus.

House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, D-Greensburg, said he was hopeful Neufeld would keep an open mind.

“He’s been willing to listen to people from different backgrounds in the past, and I think he’ll continue to do that in the future,” McKinney said.

Neufeld said he will work with those against a “common enemy,” which he described as “poor public policy that prevents Kansans from becoming all they can be.”

Later, when asked to describe his management style, Neufeld joked: “Management is probably like herding buffalo. In the Legislature, you can drive them anywhere they want to go, so you just have to know where they want to go.”