Topeka — A small group of Kansas legislators hasn’t stopped campaigning nearly four weeks after the state’s general election because Republican lawmakers are picking new, conservative leaders for the House and Senate.
Legislators are scheduled to convene Monday for party caucuses and for the first time in 12 years, the Senate president, the House speaker and the majority leaders in both chambers will be replaced. Republicans will fill all those positions, having retained majorities of 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House.
But the Legislature will lean more to the political right overall, something that’s likely to help conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback as he and lawmakers address a projected budget shortfall, discuss the follow-up to massive income tax cuts this year and tackle other issues. The House went into this year’s elections with a conservative Republican majority, but Speaker Mike O’Neal of Hutchinson didn’t seek re-election to the Legislature and is now the chief executive officer of the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce.
The change in the Senate will be even more dramatic. It had been controlled by GOP moderates who worked with Democrats to stall some Brownback initiatives, but conservatives ousted eight of them in the August primary, including outgoing President Steve Morris of Hugoton.
In the Senate, Susan Wagle of Wichita and Steve Abrams of Arkansas City are running for president. In the House, the contest for speaker is among three lawmakers from the Kansas City suburbs in southern Johnson County — Majority Leader Arlen Siegfreid and Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer of Olathe and former Majority Leader Ray Merrick of Stilwell. All of the candidates in both chambers are Brownback allies, and conservatives generally are looking forward to Brownback’s agenda facing less resistance, particularly in the Senate.
“We are the dog that caught the car,” said Sen. Terry Bruce, a conservative Hutchinson Republican who’s the only declared candidate for Senate majority leader.
Because the House speaker and Senate president are mentioned in the state constitution, Republicans’ selections must be ratified by each chamber once the Legislature convenes its 2013 session Jan. 14, but that’s traditionally a formality. House leaders will hold their jobs for 2013 and 2014, but Senate leaders will retain them through 2016.
Democrats are picking each chamber’s minority leaders, but the incumbents, Sen. Anthony Hensley of Topeka and Rep. Paul Davis of Lawrence, don’t have any declared opponents.
Meanwhile, Republicans vying for leadership positions have been phoning their GOP colleagues and traveling the state for one-on-one meetings. GOP lawmakers in both chambers were having gatherings this evening in Topeka for a last round of receptions and politicking before Monday’s voting. Brownback said this week that he’s staying out of leadership contests.
The candidates for House majority leader are Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades of Newton and Speaker Pro Tem Jene Vickrey of Louisburg.
In the Senate president’s race, Wagle is promoting her experience. She’s been a legislator for 22 years, having served a decade in the House before winning her Senate seat in 2000. She’s wooed newly elected senators and is promising openness in communicating with fellow Republicans.
Wagle said senators and senators-elect want to resolve the state’s budget problems and create jobs “as Republicans.”
“People want to work together,” she said.
But Wagle’s career also has been marked by her willingness to buck moderate GOP leaders through high-profile legislative investigations.
In 2000, as chairwoman of the House Taxation Committee, she investigated then-Attorney General Carla Stovall’s hiring of her former law firm to work on litigation against tobacco companies. In 2003, Wagle publicly criticized a Kansas University professor over the content of his human sexuality courses, and last year, the CEO of the Kansas Bioscience Authority resigned after she questioned the agency’s operations.
Abrams was elected to the Senate in 2008, but he’s a former Kansas Republican Party chairman who served on the State Board of Education for 14 years before winning his legislative seat. As a state school board member, he twice was part of conservative majorities that approved science standards demonstrating skepticism about evolution; each time, the state reverted to evolution-friendly guidelines.
Abrams touts his work on political redistricting this year but also believes his experience with education policy is important, given likely debates over school funding and proposals for giving parents more choice in where their children attend school.
“I’m looking forward to working with a much more conservative Senate,” Abrams said.
In the House, Siegfreid has been majority leader for the past two years, after Merrick held the job for four years. Merrick received a midterm appointment to the Senate late in 2010 but decided this year to run for the House again, intending from the start to seek the speaker’s job. Kinzer is an anti-abortion leader.
But Kinzer said, “From a policy perspective, any differentiation is on the margins.”
Siegfreid agreed and, like Kinzer, said he’s committed to giving all House members a role in setting policy. That’s emerged as a concern because the House will have 40 Republicans who haven’t served in the Legislature previously.
“Everyone needs to have a voice,” Siegfreid said. “We have an eclectic state.”