The newly re-elected speaker of the Kansas House reiterated on Monday that he would rather deal with the state’s budget problems by cutting spending than by revisiting the tax cuts that are shrinking state revenues.
Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, was overwhelmingly elected to a second term as speaker, defeating Rep. Virgil Peck of Tyro, 80-16.
Republicans now hold a 97- to 28-seat majority in the House.
Merrick, a conservative, said he believes the state should rely primarily on spending cuts to avert projected budget deficits of $279 million this year and $715 million next year.
“That’s where I am right now. As things progress, we’ll see what happens,” Merrick said. “But I still think we spend too much.”
When asked what he would cut, Merrick said: “I really haven’t looked at it yet. That’s what one of my priorities will be after today.”
Some Republicans in the Senate have said they might be willing to delay additional scheduled cuts in income tax rates and require some business owners to resume paying taxes.
Republicans passed the tax cuts at the urging of Gov. Sam Brownback hoping to stimulate the economy through job growth. But last week the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Kansas’ rate of private-sector job growth continues to lag behind the national rate. The 13,900 private sector jobs created in Kansas in October was 1.24 percent higher than the number of jobs created in the same period last year. But nationally, private-sector job growth grew by 2.24 percent.
Rep. Tom Burroughs of Kansas City, the newly elected leader of the 28-member Democratic minority in the House, said the state’s budget problems will be “the challenge” of the upcoming session.
“We stand ready to hear what the governor proposes,” Burroughs said.
Burroughs defeated Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita for the minority leader’s post by promising to stand up for “the policies that we feel are important” while also seeking common ground with Republicans when possible.
Ward, in brief remarks prior to the leadership vote, proposed to take a harder line against Republicans who he said had turned their backs on poor Kansans by refusing to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid.
“I will work daily to hold them accountable for their policies,” Ward said. “We must be bold. We cannot cower in fear.”
Rep. John Wilson, a Lawrence Democrat, supported Burroughs, who defeated Ward 17-11.
“We need to make sure at the end of the day that our leadership can build bridges where we can and stand firm where we can’t,” Wilson said.
Both Wilson, who was elected policy chair of the caucus, and Burroughs said Medicaid expansion would be among the top priorities of House Democrats.
“Medicaid expansion is something that will have to be discussed this session,” Burroughs said.
Burroughs succeeds Paul Davis as the Democratic leader. Davis, from Lawrence, vacated his seat to run unsuccessfully for governor.
Rep. Louis Ruiz, also from Kansas City, was elected assistant minority leader. He defeated Rep. Valdenia Winn 15-13 on the second ballot.
House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, a Louisburg Republican, retained his position by a unanimous vote and Rep. Peggy Mast, an Emporia Republican, was elected to a second term as speaker pro-tem by a vote of 59-36.