Topeka With a billion dollar budget crisis looming, lawmakers gather today to select their leadership for the upcoming session.
The elections could put conservatives in charge of both chambers when legislators convene Jan. 12.
The House has been led mainly by conservatives since the mid-1990s and that is unlikely to change this year. House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, of Ingalls, is challenged for a second term by a fellow conservative, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike O’Neal, of Hutchinson.
The Senate is a different story.
Senate President Steve Morris, a moderate from Hugoton, faces conservative Sen. Susan Wagle, of Wichita. A Wagle victory would mean conservatives going to the table to negotiate with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ Democratic administration.
Wagle says colleagues want a “fresh face and new leadership,” while Morris supporters say his experience with state budgets makes him the best person to deal with the fiscal problem. Both say they have the needed 16 votes to win.
Morris and Wagle agree the state’s financial problems will be the main topic during the upcoming session.
The state faces a projected $141 million deficit when the current fiscal year ends June 30. Left unchecked, it will grow to $1.02 billion by June 30, 2010. Legislators have to make revenues and spending match.
Republicans have a 77-48 margin in the House and a 31-9 edge in the Senate. That includes 11 new House Republicans and six GOP first-termers in the Senate. Many legislators expect a close vote in both chambers since voting will be by secret ballot.
Wagle served 10 years in the House, where she was speaker pro tem for four years, before moving to the Senate in 2000. She made a failed bid for lieutenant governor in 2006.
Morris first was elected to the Senate in 1992 and has served on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee either as a member or chairman since then.
Whoever wins will create a bit of history. Wagle would be the first woman in that position and Morris would be the first to serve two, four-year terms since Bud Burke was Senate president from 1989-97.
In theory, Democrats could have the final word on Senate president when the Legislature convenes because that position is voted on by the entire chamber.
Democrats traditionally defer to Republicans, but Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley says his caucus voting against Wagle is “not beyond the realm of possibility.”
Whoever is the next Senate president and House speaker will face hard choices. Unlike previous years, there are no simple solutions or accounting gimmicks to resolve the budget
Sebelius wants agencies to cut their current budgets by 3 percent. She says she hopes to protect public schools and social services this year and in the budget proposal she is drafting for the next fiscal year.
Neufeld, seeking a second term, and O’Neal both say Sebelius needs to cut more than 3 percent. O’Neal says it might not be possible to protect school funding, given that schools account for 53 percent of the $6.4 billion general fund budget.
O’Neal is making his third run for speaker, after losing to Neufeld two years ago in a three-way race. He says his leadership style will be more open.
He has been Judiciary chairman for the past decade and Education Committee chairman before that. Before becoming speaker, Neufeld headed the Appropriations Committee.
Neufeld has been criticized for not stopping the 2007 expanded gambling bill, which he opposed. He also has taken heat for failure during the last session to find enough votes to override three vetoes of bills allowing construction of two coal-fired power plants near Holcomb, which he also supported.
There are other races today.
In the House, Republican Jene Vickrey, of Louisburg, is challenging Majority Leader Ray Merrick, of Stilwell, who’s seeking a second term. The minority leader’s race became a three-way battle after Democrat Dennis McKinney was named state treasurer, replacing Republican Lynn Jenkins, who was elected to Congress.
In the running for McKinney’s post are the assistant minority leader, Jim Ward of Wichita; Paul Davis, of Lawrence; and Bill Feuerborn, of Garnett.
In the Senate, conservative Sen. Karin Brownlee is challenging Senate Vice President John Vratil, of Leawood, a moderate, who’s going for second term.
Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, may be challenged by Sen. Chris Steineger, of Kansas City.