At the very least, Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal’s decision to represent clients who are suing the state is a major distraction for lawmakers.
At worst, it could raise serious ethical concerns about possible conflicts of interest involving a legislative leader who wields powerful control over what issues are considered by his chamber.
O’Neal is representing 20 plaintiffs who are challenging the constitutionality of a provision in last year’s final appropriations bill that swept unused fees from various state funds. In defending his decision to act as the group’s attorney, the speaker cited the fact that he voted against the appropriations bill and filed a written protest. He also said he has fully complied with state ethics laws in the matter.
Meeting the letter of the law is not the key issue here. Disagreeing, even vehemently, with a decision by the Kansas House doesn’t make it OK for the speaker to get involved in a lawsuit against the state. Legislating is all about compromise and accepting the will of the majority. It just isn’t appropriate for the leader of the House to be filing suit over a decision approved by the majority of House members.
A fellow legislator’s call on Friday for O’Neal to step down as speaker may be an overreaction, but not by much. In the current economic crisis the state needs a speaker who is able to maintain a certain level of objectivity, not one who is actively fighting the state government. If he has problems with state laws, he has a powerful podium to address those issues, but it should be in the Legislature, not in the courtroom.