The top Republican leaders in the Kansas House and Senate face criticism from their political right because of how they’re handling major issues.
Senate President Steve Morris has been targeted by small-government, anti-tax conservatives who’d like to oust him from his seat in the GOP primary in August. The Hugoton Republican faces dissention among GOP senators for creating a special study group on tax issues — a move some interpret as an attempt to stall Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s efforts to overhaul the individual income tax code.
In the House, Speaker Mike O’Neal seems an unlikely target of criticism from the right because he’s established conservative credentials and been an ally of the conservative governor. But shortly after O’Neal removed another conservative from the powerful House Appropriations Committee, that lawmaker excoriated him in an email and accused O’Neal of abusing his power by naming himself chairman of the committee drafting political redistricting legislation.
The criticism faced by Morris demonstrates that as much power as conservatives gained from the 2010 elections, a key question for voters in 2012 will be whether they want to push the state further to the right. Rep. Owen Donohoe’s criticism of O’Neal shows conservatives aren’t a monolithic bloc.
“We work with a diverse group — some would say an eclectic group,” said House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfried, of Olathe, whose Statehouse office features a large, framed poster of former President Ronald Reagan and quotes the conservative icon’s so-called 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
Donohoe, who’s from Shawnee, has faulted O’Neal for being too close to Brownback, who some conservatives think hasn’t done enough to cut spending. And after O’Neal removed Donohoe from the Appropriations Committee, Donohoe sent a Jan. 7 email attacking him on a number of issues.
Among other things, Donohoe noted that O’Neal’s wife, Cindy, who’s worked for more than two decades as an aide to House committees and the House GOP caucus, is now the committee’s administrative assistant.
The state ethics commission dismissed a nepotism complaint against O’Neal in 2009, saying there was no evidence he helped his wife get a job with the GOP. Donohoe’s email brought a quick response from Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, who said he decided “completely on my own” to hire Cindy O’Neal.
Donohoe also criticized O’Neal, a 27-year veteran of the Legislature, for appointing himself chairman of the committee that will redraw House members’ districts. House Minority Leader Paul Davis, of Lawrence, is the panel’s ranking Democrat.
Meanwhile, Morris faces political turmoil because he leads the last significant moderate stronghold in state government.
He and other senators are labeled as moderates in part because they worked in 2010 to avoid an impasse with then-Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson over balancing the budget and supported his push to increase the state’s sales tax. They’ve also resisted some conservatives’ push for hard caps on state spending growth and last year quietly blocked a House-passed plan to phase out individual income taxes, fearing it would starve education and other government programs.
The Kansas Chamber of Commerce has targeted Morris and seven other moderates in GOP primaries, and the anti-tax, small-government group Americans for Prosperity also plans to weigh in with media campaigns.
Morris announced in October that he’d have a special group study tax issues during this year’s legislative session. His announcement came as Brownback’s administration was drafting its tax plan, which cuts individual income tax rates, eliminates deductions and credits and helps 191,000 business operators by exempting their partnerships and proprietorships’ earnings from income taxes.
Morris said he created a special study group so that he could appoint nonlegislators and get the public directly involved in tax discussions. “Taxes are so important. They affect the daily lives of every Kansan, and I think it’s important to have public input and evaluate these — in other words, look before you leap,” he said.