Republican rift

It's unfortunate Republicans in the Kansas House passed over Rep. Kenny Wilk for the speaker's job.

Monday’s leadership elections in the Kansas House seem to point to a continuation of the rift between conservative and moderate Republicans in the Legislature.

Rep. Melvin Neufeld of Ingalls, one of the House’s most conservative members, beat Kenny Wilk of Lansing and Mike O’Neal of Hutchinson to take over the speaker’s job. He replaces Doug Mays, who didn’t seek re-election this year.

On the first ballot, Neufeld received 29 votes to Wilk’s 25 and O’Neal’s 24. After O’Neal was eliminated, most of his votes went to Neufeld, resulting in a 47-31 victory on the second ballot.

The choice of a solid conservative, Neufeld, over a solid moderate, Wilk, is a strong indication that conservatives still will be a dominant force in the Kansas House.

It seems Wilk would have been in a much better position than Neufeld to work with moderate Republicans and Democrats in the House. That will be even more important this session given that Democrats gained five House seats in the recent elections.

Unfortunately, it seems the state has heard from Neufeld mostly when he was opposing some initiative or action. He was among those who bottled up budget measures last year with a proposal to define cloning and ban state funding for it. He dug his heels in against the Kansas Supreme Court during the school finance debate. And he’s certainly no friend of higher education in the state, attacking university budgets and saying as recently as this fall that most Kansas workers don’t have a need for a college education.

By contrast, Wilk has taken an active role in some major state initiatives. He and State Sen. Nick Jordan were the architects of the Kansas Economic Growth Act, passed in 2004 to boost bioscience efforts and revitalize rural communities. This was in spite of the fact that Mays had removed Wilk as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee when he took over as speaker in 2002. Wilk also has been a strong supporter of higher education, and worked hard on passage of a compromise school finance bill.

Given that more moderate Republican leadership will remain in control of the Kansas Senate – President Steve Morris and Majority Leader Derek Schmidt – the election of Neufeld seems to ensure continued discord between the two chambers. It also is likely to mean that moderate House Republicans will continue to look to House Democrats, rather than members of their own party, for support on key policy issues.

It seems likely that if both Democrats and Republicans had voted on a House speaker, Wilk would have won. But that’s not how it works. Republicans hold the majority in the House and conservatives apparently still hold the majority in the Republican House delegation.

There has been considerable talk since the November elections about the positive aspects of “divided” government, referring to the Republican president and the newly Democratic Congress. If such divisions really do force more discussion and compromise and lead to better policy, then Kansas should be in for a banner year.