Topeka Top Democrats criticized an unsuccessful push by Kansas' Republican House speaker to delay pay cuts for legislative leaders' staff — including the speaker's wife — because the state law imposing them took effect Thursday.
The law imposes a 5 percent cut in pay through June 30 for legislators, other elected state officials, judges and about 100 top administrators in the executive branch. It also applies to all staff in legislative leaders' offices, including their secretaries.
Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, sent a letter Wednesday to Jeff Russell, the Legislature's administrative services, asking him not to reduce the pay for legislative leaders' staff.
Russell replied in writing Thursday that he didn't see any flexibility in the law. "Therefore, I do not believe I can comply with your request," he wrote.
The legislative staffers facing cuts include O'Neal's wife, Cindy, who has been a liaison for the House GOP caucus since January 2009.
"Don't let it be lost on you that we're talking about his own wife's pay," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. "It applies to his wife."
O'Neal said Thursday that the House will re-examine the pay cut for legislators' staff because it does not apply to similar employees in the judicial or executive branches. He also said it makes more sense to delay cuts for legislative staff until the issue is settled than to start, stop and possibly restart the cuts.
His letter to Russell did not mention any legislative staffer by name or position, and his request would apply to all legislative leaders' staff.
O'Neal said he's not singling out any leaders' staff and is not even arguing against cutting their pay. Instead, he said, the policy should be consistent across state government.
"Apply the cuts to us, if you want, but make sure they apply to the executive and judicial branch offices," he said.
Russell told O'Neal that each legislative leader could counter the cut with an immediate pay raise for the affected staff, which could then be withdrawn later. Or, he said, legislators could give each staffer a one-time payment to make up for any lost wages.
Last year, the hiring of O'Neal's wife led Democratic Rep. Marti Crow, of Leavenworth, to file a nepotism complaint against the speaker. According to state payroll records, she was paid $26,802 last year.
But the Governmental Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint, saying the evidence didn't suggest the speaker played a role in his wife's hiring by the office of House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican. She previously was secretary for the House Judiciary Committee, of which O'Neal was chairman.
The state's anti-nepotism law forbids a state employee from hiring or promoting a household member in a state job, or advocating such actions. It also prohibits an involvement in disciplinary action, but it says nothing specifically adjusting salaries or advocating salary changes.
"The commission has never even considered that issue," said Executive Director Carol Williams.
Meanwhile, Democrats were still criticizing O'Neal, an attorney, for filing a lawsuit against the state in Shawnee County over a financial move legislators approved last year to help balance the budget. His clients include industry workers' compensation funds, the Kansas Bankers Association, the Kansas Realtors Association and a Wichita company doing business as Speedy Cash.
House Democrats have promised "formal action" if the speaker didn't remove himself and his law firm from the case, but haven't responded yet to his refusal to do so.
As for the pay cut issue, House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said he doesn't know if other legislators will want to revise the policy and in the meantime, they have to follow the law.
"The fact of the matter is, it was signed into law," Davis said. "We're going to have to abide by that."