Topeka — Shaped by childhood struggles and battles with cancer, the Kansas Legislature’s new conservative Republican leaders are committed to shrinking government and lowering taxes further, and they’re promising less conflict among GOP lawmakers this year.
Even opponents expect incoming Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita and new House Speaker Ray Merrick of Stilwell to make good on pledges to reduce strife. Wagle and Merrick are allies of conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, while the Senate’s leaders were GOP moderates before last year’s elections.
Wagle, 59, survived multiple bouts of lymphoma since first being diagnosed with cancer in the 1990s, and her hair is still short from a round of chemotherapy last year. Merrick, 73, recalls a hardscrabble childhood after his birth in a log cabin in northern Alberta, Canada, and his biological father’s desertion of the family.
‘Working with each other’
They said in a joint interview with The Associated Press the Legislature’s debates on the budget and economic issues will be shaped by ongoing uncertainty about the national economy and the federal government’s ability to manage its own finances. They said the state must keep trimming its own budget and follow up on massive income tax cuts approved last year to create economic opportunities and attract new residents.
They said they’re determined to avoid what they see as the “dysfunction” of the past two years. A conservative-led House was often at odds with a Senate controlled by a coalition of GOP moderates and Democrats, hindering Brownback’s push for tax cuts, changes in the state’s education funding formula and other initiatives.
“There was an avoidance of communication during the last two years,” Wagle said. “And that’s the big change — we’re going to be working with each other, talking to each other.”
Merrick interjected: “It’s not a long walk across the rotunda.”
Wagle and Merrick are set to take over new jobs when the Legislature opens its 2013 session Jan. 14. Each leader has served in both chambers and believes that fact will smooth the relationship between their Republican majorities, 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House.
Wagle served a decade in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2000. Merrick entered the House in 2000 and served four years as its majority leader before being appointed to fill a Senate vacancy in 2010. He ran again for the House last year, intending to seek the speaker’s job.
Wagle and her husband own and operate a real estate leasing and management company. Merrick owns a shopping center maintenance business.
Not only has Wagle survived cancer, but her youngest son, now 21, was diagnosed with leukemia a decade ago and needed treatment with umbilical cord stem cells. She said medical issues brought her family closer together and made obstacles in shepherding legislation minor.
“They’re nothing like being told you’re not going to live very long,” she said. “Any of us can die in a car accident tomorrow, and as long as I’m here, and as long as I’m able, I want to continue working. I want to continue being a mom.”
She added: “There’s no reason to shut down. That’s an indication of a bad attitude.”
Merrick, delivered by a traveling nurse, still owns the family homestead in Canada. But his father was from Iowa, and his mother tracked him down and divorced him there, then worked three jobs to keep her family together. One vivid memory for Merrick is receiving a bicycle as a child for Christmas.
“I thought the neighbors had taken up a collection for me to get a bike,” he said. “Because she didn’t have any money. I didn’t know she was scrimping and saving to get me a bike.”
Merrick also served seven years in the Marine Corps and Marine reserves in the 1960s, lost confidence in President John F. Kennedy over the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and embraced President Ronald Reagan.
Both he and Wagle are members of the national board of directors of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which brings corporate leaders and conservative legislators together to draft model proposals on a wide range of subjects.
“If you have two people with the same political philosophy, supporting the same issues to the same extent, then, sure, you’re not going to have as much conflict,” said outgoing Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, a moderate Lindsborg Republican.
Emler said that despite policy disagreements, he had a good working relationship with his House counterpart the past two years. House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, blamed House Republicans for the conflicts, with conservatives there unseating Senate incumbents in primaries last year.
“Given that you won’t have a situation where the House Republican leadership has declared war on the Senate Republican leadership, it can only get better,” Davis said.