Legislature inches toward center with leadership elections

by Andy Marso, KHI News Service

Republicans in the Kansas House and Senate elected coalitions of center and center-right members Monday to lead their chambers in the upcoming session.

The shift from uniformly conservative leadership teams reflects gains that moderate Republicans made in the August primaries, especially in the House.

House Republicans voted for Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr. to replace Rep. Ray Merrick as House speaker, a change that will become official after a confirmation vote by the full House when the session opens Jan. 9.

For the past two years, Merrick had appointed Ryckman to chair the critical House Appropriations Committee. Both are conservatives from Johnson County.

But GOP House members voted Monday for several more moderate Republicans to serve in leadership roles under Ryckman, including Rep. Don Hineman of Dighton as House majority leader and Rep. Tom Phillips of Manhattan as assistant majority leader.

Ryckman said it was time for a more open, collaborative environment in the House and promised debates even on politically fraught issues like expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.

“I think things have changed with the presidential race,” Ryckman said. “But we’ll listen to the health care industry and see what their ideas are. We need to have a chance to have all these ideas debated, especially people who ran on certain issues.”

Ryckman earned 57 of the 85 House Republicans’ votes to defeat Russ Jennings, a moderate Republican from Lakin, for the speakership.

Jennings’ 28 votes give him and the other moderates leverage to vote with the chamber’s 40 Democrats and have a majority on issues where they align.

But as he conceded Monday to Ryckman, Jennings said House Republicans should repair rifts that have emerged in the last few years.

“The time has come to turn the page and to be one caucus,” Jennings said.

‘A state of flux’

However, tight margins in several other leadership votes suggest that might be easier said than done.

Hineman and Phillips both defeated more conservative members by votes of 44-41, getting one more vote than the bare minimum they needed.

Rep. Scott Schwab, a conservative from Olathe, was easily elected House speaker pro tem. Two more moderate GOP legislators — Kent Thompson, House majority whip, and Susan Concannon, House caucus chair — rounded out the leadership team.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, a conservative from Wichita, lost to Phillips in his bid for a leadership job.

He said the full slate of votes means Ryckman will have to govern with moderates and Hawkins’ position as chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee “probably is in a state of flux now.”

“I would imagine that Ron has to put together his team,” Hawkins said. “Elections have consequences, and this election pretty much showed it’s going to be a fairly blended leadership team.”

On the Senate side, the leadership change was more subtle but also shifted toward the center.

Sen. Susan Wagle from Wichita was easily re-elected to be Senate president, pending confirmation from the full Senate, and another conservative, Sen. Jim Denning, was unopposed in his bid to be Senate majority leader.

But Sen. Jeff Longbine, a center-right Republican from Emporia who has expressed discontent with the chamber’s tax and budget votes, was elected vice president and Sen. Vicki Schmidt, one of the chamber’s most moderate Republicans, was elected assistant majority leader.

Longbine said it was time to unite a Senate Republican caucus split into factions labeled “moderate” and “conservative” since the 2012 primary campaigns in which several GOP Senate leaders were ousted by more right-wing challengers.

“I would like to remove those (labels),” Longbine said. “We need to understand that we are a diverse body and we represent diverse districts. But at the end of the day there are 31 Republicans, and we need to govern like Republicans and realize that we need to discuss our differences, come to a consensus and pass legislation that will benefit the majority of the state.”

Sen. Elaine Bowers, another center-right Republican, was elected majority whip.

Democrat changes

While Republicans were trying to build unity after years of contentious votes forced by several budget crises, House Democrats found themselves divided over their leadership.

Rep. Tom Burroughs of Kansas City Kan., made a run to retain his position as House minority leader but deadlocked in a 20-20 vote with Rep. Jim Ward from Wichita, an outspoken critic of Gov. Sam Brownback, his administration and previous Republican House leaders.

One vote later flipped to make Ward the new minority leader in the House, where Democrats’ numbers will increase from 28 to 40.

Sen. Anthony Hensley of Topeka, the Legislature’s longest-serving member, was chosen to remain the minority leader in the 40-member Senate, where the Democrats’ numbers will increase from eight to nine.

The nonprofit KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute and a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor reporting collaboration. All stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org when a story is reposted online.

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