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Leadership in the Kansas Legislature Shifts to the Center, Politically

Republican Speaker-elect Ron Ryckman in the House chamber Monday. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)

There has been a political shift in the Kansas legislature after lawmakers selected new leaders Monday. Conservatives held on to the top jobs, but more moderate Republicans also scored wins. Stephen Koranda and Jim McLean report on the new leadership, starting with the Kansas House.


Staff members were counting the votes for the top job in the Kansas House. It was conservative Republican Ron Ryckman versus moderate Republican Russ Jennings in the race for speaker.

Ryckman came out on top. The chamber will have fewer conservative members after the recent elections and Ryckman made the pitch that he would be willing to listen to a variety of viewpoints.
 
“It’s all hands on deck. If someone’s willing to find a way to get to a ‘yes,’ we’re willing to listen,” says Ryckman.
 
And the Republican nominee for Speaker says all options will be on the table when it comes to issues like taxes and the budget.
 
“The House will have a plan. We will work and craft that together. We’ll get buy-in from a number of people. We’re going to balance the books,” says Ryckman.
 
There’s been division among Kansas Republicans in recent years. After it became clear Ryckman would win, his opponent, Jennings, said moderates and conservatives should band together.
 
“The time has come for the division to end. The time has come to turn the page and be one caucus,” says Jennings.
 
And after picking a conservative for speaker, the chamber turned right around and  elected a moderate Republican, Don Hineman, to another important job, majority leader.
 
“It’s not a lurch to the left it’s a shift to the center, or a return to the center,” says Hineman.
 
Kansas has struggled to balance the budget since taxes were cut several years ago. Lawmakers face an immediate budget shortfall of almost $350 million. Hineman says to get people like him on board for budget bills, there will have to be some consideration of new tax revenues. He notes no one faction has enough votes to pass a bill.
 
“I’m looking forward to working with all the members of the leadership team. I’m confident that we can work together and, frankly, we’re going to have to,” says Hineman.
 
There was a shakeup in the House Democratic caucus too. Wichita Representative Jim Ward challenged incumbent Minority Leader Tom Burroughs for the post and beat him by only one vote on the second ballot. Ward says he’ll be asserting Democratic positions on the floor and reaching out to the press and the public.

The same movement to the middle evident in the House leadership elections could be seen here as well.
 
Conservative Republican Susan Wagle, from Wichita, was elected to a second term as Senate president. But she needed moderate votes to put her over the top against the more conservative Ty Masterson of Andover.

Wagle says she’s eager to get to work on the state’s budget problems.

“I predict that we’ll get down to work rather quickly. Everyone who ran for office is well aware that the public wants a balanced budget,” says Wagle.
 
A newcomer to leadership, Senator Jeff Longbine easily defeated Wichita conservative Gene Sullentrop for vice president. The vote was 23 to 6.

“I was extremely surprised by the overwhelming support that I got. I anticipated a little closer race,” says Longbine.
 
Longbine – an Emporia car dealer and six year Senate veteran – isn’t squarely in either the moderate or conservative camps. But he’s more moderate than his predecessor and will likely have more authority over committee assignments and the Senate’s debate calendar.
 
Senator Jim Denning of Overland Park faced no opposition for majority leader. Denning is a conservative. But he has inched more to the center in recent years. Enough that he’s talking about raising taxes to help erase the budget’s red ink and restore some of the money siphoned from the highway fund.
 
“Like a Lottery tax, I can see that being entertained. I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody looked at another cigarette tax. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we entertained a 5 cent gas tax,” says Denning.
 
Denning was among the first Republicans to question the income tax cuts championed by Governor Sam Brownback. That set him apart and helped him survive in a year when several conservative incumbents didn’t.
 
The shift to the center was also evident in another leadership election.
 
It was redemption for Senator Vicki Schmidt, from Topeka. She was the only moderate Republican targeted in 2012 who wasn’t swept away by that year’s conservative tide.

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