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Sen. Wagle elected president of the Kansas Senate; Merrick new House speaker
Topeka — The Kansas Senate took a hard right on Monday as Republicans elected Susan Wagle as the next Senate president to complete the conservative takeover of state government.
Wagle, R-Wichita, whose victory makes her the first woman to lead a chamber in the Kansas Legislature, has been a staunch conservative voice for 22 years in the Statehouse and in the middle of many conservative-moderate fights within the Republican Party.
In 2003, Wagle made national headlines alleging improprieties in a human sexuality class at Kansas University. An investigation by KU concluded that the charges were unfounded.
Wagle will replace moderate Republican Steve Morris, who was among a group of moderates defeated in the Republican primary by a conservative blitz led by Gov. Sam Brownback, the billionaire Koch brothers and Kansas Chamber of Commerce.
On Monday, conservatives in the Senate elected their people in all leadership positions. No moderates were even nominated.
When the Legislature convenes Jan. 14, Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, will be majority leader, and Jeff King, R-Independence, Senate vice president. They will join House leaders already firmly in the conservative ranks. Wagle defeated fellow conservative state Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, in a 23-9 vote.
After her election, Wagle, who has survived several bouts with cancer, said the vote for her “brings hope and encouragement to an awful lot of people who want a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”
How far right will the Senate go?
Later, she said the budget will be the dominant issue of the next legislative session.
Because of Brownback’s tax cuts, which includes eliminating income taxes for 191,000 businesses, the state is facing an estimated $328 million revenue shortfall next year.
“My greatest concern is the budget deficit we’re facing and how we’ll resolve that, and I think that will clearly dominate the session,” she said.
Wagle said a big factor in fixing the state budget will be what the federal government does to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” of automatic tax increases and budget cuts.
She said making history as the first woman elected Senate president was nice, but added, “I don’t think that was why I was elected.”
Republicans hold a 32-8 advantage over Democrats in the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the new Republican leaders are more conservative the current ones. “It just remains to be seen how far right they will go,” he said.
He said conservatives will be divided on some issues, such as undocumented workers, where the tea party wants tough restrictions that the Kansas Chamber of Commerce opposes.
“I don’t think it’s a given they will walk in lockstep,” Hensley said of conservative Republicans.
Of Wagle, he said, “I’ve admired her independent streak in the past. She is her own person,” he said. But, he noted, they differ on many issues, mentioning her push for anti-union legislation.
Senate Democratic revolt
Hensley faced a revolt in his eight-member caucus from state Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City.
The first ballot for Senate minority leader was tied 4-4 and then Hensley won 5-3 on the second ballot. State Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, challenged state Sen. Laura Kelley, D-Topeka, for assistant minority leader and won.
On the House side, Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, won a three-man race for speaker to replace Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, who retired from the Legislature to lead the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, was elected majority leader.
Republicans hold a 92-33 edge over Democrats in the House. State Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, was re-elected House minority 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 the session, but that’s traditionally a formality. House leaders will hold their jobs for 2013 and 2014, but Senate leaders will retain them through 2016.
Wagle has history
Wagle has fought moderate Republicans in several highly publicized issues.
In 2000, as chairwoman of the House Taxation Committee, Wagle launched an investigation into then-Attorney General Carla Stovall’s hiring of her former law firm to work on litigation against tobacco companies.
In 2003, Wagle went to the floor of the Senate and alleged a Kansas University professor showed pornographic videos, rationalized pedophilia and harassed female students in his human sexuality class. But an investigation by KU said the allegations were unsubstantiated.
And last year, Wagle questioned the operations of the Kansas Bioscience Authority. Later, the agency’s chief executive officer resigned.