Who's Who: Kansas Legislature Selects New Leadership

There will be a political shift in the Kansas legislature with the new leaders lawmakers selected Monday. Conservatives will hold on to the very top jobs for 2017, but more moderate Republicans also picked up key positions. There is turnover among some of the Democratic leadership posts too.

All the change reflects gains made by moderate Republicans in the August primaries, and gains by Democrats in November, especially in the House. The move to the center on the Senate side is more subtle, but nonetheless notable.

“Elections have consequences and this election pretty much showed it’s going to be a fairly blended leadership team,” said Rep. Dan Hawkins, a conservative Republican from Wichita who lost a bid for leadership job.

House Speaker: Rep. Ron Ryckman

Republicans voted 57 to 28 for Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr. over Rep. Russ Jennings as the next speaker to be confirmed by the full House when the session opens Jan. 9.

Despite Ryckman’s win, those 28 votes for Jennings are serious leverage for him and other moderates, who could join with the 40 Democrats in the House to form majorities on certain issues.

The chamber will have fewer conservative members in 2017, prompting Ryckman to make clear that he would be willing to listen to a variety of viewpoints as speaker.

“It’s all hands on deck. If someone’s willing to find a way to get to a ‘yes,’ we’re willing to listen,” Ryckman said Monday.

Ryckman, who’s run a number of successful construction businesses, has had a rather rapid ascent through the Kansas Legislature. He was only elected to the House four years ago.

As speaker he’d be replacing Rep. Ray Merrick, who retired. Like Merrick, Ryckman is a conservative representing Johnson County, and Merrick appointed him to chair the critical House Appropriations Committee for the past two years.

Ryckman took the reins of the budget committee after a tumultuous 2014 session and has led the panel with a calm, soft-spoken approach despite contentious budget battles amid shrinking revenues following tax cuts in 2012 and 2013.

While he’s scored high with the Kansas State Rifle Association and Kansans For Life, during last summer’s special session Ryckman also showed his willingness to work with moderate Republicans and even Democrats.

He brokered a deal that lead to an additional $38 million in education funding to satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling on school equity. Republican moderates, Democrats and educators all gave him good marks for getting all parties into a room to hammer out a solution.

While a big supporter of Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts, he has acknowledged that continuing revenue problems will likely force some adjustment to the tax code.

“The House will have a plan. We will work and craft that together. We’ll get buy-in from a number of people,” Ryckman said upon getting the nomination for speaker. “We’re going to balance the books”

House Majority Leader: Rep. Don Hineman

After picking a conservative for speaker, House Republicans filled the second most powerful post -- majority leader -- with a moderate, Rep. Don Hineman of Dighton. But it was a competitive race. Hineman defeated Rep. John Barker of Abilene 44 to 41.

Hineman, a farmer, has enjoyed the support of both the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a conservative organization, and the Kansas National Education Association, a teacher’s union. He’s also known as an advocate for rural communities and has had the backing of the Kansas Farm Bureau.

He says to get people like him on board for budget bills, there will have to be some consideration of new tax revenues. Given that no one faction has enough votes to pass a bill, he might have the sway to deal.

“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,” Hineman said.

Lawmakers will immediately face a budget shortfall of more than $345 million for the second half of the current fiscal year.

Assistant House Majority Leader: Rep. Tom Phillips

Right behind Hineman will be Rep. Tom Phillips, elected assistant majority leader by the same 44-41 margin. Like Hineman, Phillips favors rolling back the income tax cuts championed by Gov. Brownback that many believe are the root cause of the state’s ongoing budget problems.

Phillips started his House career in February 2012 when he replaced Susan Mosier, who was absorbed into the Brownback administration and is now the Secretary of Health and Environment. When not in session, he works as a community development consultant in Manhattan.

Also like Hineman, he gets high marks from NFIB and the Farm Bureau, and has been endorsed by the KNEA too.

Speaker Pro Tem: Rep. Scott Schwab

Presuming he’s confirmed in January, Rep. Scott Schwab will be handling the rules that govern debates in the House on the budget, and everything else. With more than 50 votes, he handily beat two other candidates for speaker pro tem.

In his second-multi-term stint in the House, Schwab has been chairing the House Insurance and Financial Institutions Committee, and is known as a rules expert.

He’s generally conservative, but has an independent streak that showed in 2014 when he sent an email to supporters that suggested Koch Industries was pulling the strings at the Kansas Chamber, the state’s most powerful business lobbying group.

It was Schwab’s 10-year-old son Caleb who died last summer in an accident at the Schlitterbahn water park in Kansas City.

House Minority Leader: Rep. Jim Ward

In his nominating speech, Rep. Jim Ward predicted that the Republican caucus would continue to be fractured, leaving the 40 Democrats to be the “voice of reason” in the House.

“As the Republican chaos and the disputes between the ultra conservatives, and the somewhat conservatives, and the moderates goes on, the one consistent thing if we do it right will be this caucus,” Ward said.

It was made plain by the vote for House minority leader, though, that there’s a split among Democrats too.

Ward faced off, as he has before, against incumbent Minority Leader Tom Burroughs. Each got exactly 20 votes on the first ballot Monday. Ward managed to flip one vote to win 21 to 19 on the second go around.

But, unlike the Republicans, the split among Democrats is more about style or strategy than substance.

“We need a leader who will strike a balance between the roles of faithful opposition and public servant,” Burroughs said, describing himself.

Ward, who is more bombastic than Burroughs, stressed the need for Democrats to advocate positions within the caucus, on the House floor, and in talking with constituents back home.

After winning the post, Ward said we’d see a difference in committee assignments with him as minority leader (he’ll get the final say on ranking members). He said “aggressive outreach” to press and to the public would also be coming.

Both Ward and Burroughs had a big hand in getting 12 more Democrats elected to the House. Rep. Sydney Carlin says the increased ranks alone will change the House dynamic.

“You know, our governor said years ago, ‘we don’t want any votes from the Democratic side on budget or whatever, we’ll do it by ourselves.’” But now, Carlin says, it’s different, “They’re going to have to work with us.”

Ward will be leading the charge.

He has been one of the Legislature’s most outspoken proponents of LGBT rights and fought, unsuccessfully, for a legislative audit into whether the Kansas Department for Children and Families was trying to steer Kansas kids away from foster and adoptive placements with gay couples.

As the top Democrat on the House Health and Human Services Committee, Ward has also been at times a caustic critic of KanCare, the Brownback administration’s switch to Medicaid managed care under three private insurance companies.

Assistant House Minority Leader: Rep. Stan Frownfelter

It also took two rounds of balloting to decide the assistant House minority leader. Rep. Stan Frownfelter ultimately won out over two of his fellow Kansas Citians, incumbent Minority Leader Louis Ruiz and Rep. Valdenia Winn.

Frownfelter has been in the House since 2007 and has seen the Democrats’ numbers in the chamber rise and fall during his tenure.

Rep. Adam Lusker in nominating Frownfelter said, regardless of the size of the caucus, he had found a way to make an impact. “Stan once told me, you don’t have to have a title to be a leader,” Lusker said.

More than once, Frownfelter has introduced bills to try to raise the minimum wage in Kansas.

Noting Frownfelter’s tendency to come early and stay late, Rep. John Carmichael said “he lives here during the session.” Carmichael said he expects Frownfelter to maintain those long hours when the time comes to start recruiting candidates for the 2018 elections.

In their leadership selections, Democrats definitely had an eye toward continuing to grow their ranks.

Sen. Susan Wagle stands in the Senate chamber on leadership selection day.
Credit KHI News Service

Senate President: Sen. Susan Wagle

Sen. Susan Wagle is equal parts warrior and survivor, according to those who have watched her since she entered Kansas politics more than 20 years ago. On Monday, she somehow pivoted toward the center just enough to fend off a challenge from Ty Masterson, the hardline incumbent Ways and Means chairman. She defeated him 23 to 7, with one member abstaining.

As a member of the House, she fought against abortion and property taxes. After moving to the Senate, she made national “culture war” headlines by targeting a Kansas University professor whose human sexuality class crossed the line into what she considered pornography.

Then, in 2012, she helped orchestrate a conservative takeover of the Legislature, ousting then Senate President Steve Morris and several other moderate Republicans in the process. When the dust cleared, she stood as the first female president of the Senate.

Now, four years later she has survived the pendulum’s swing back to the middle.

She survived despite, or perhaps because of, charges from the chamber’s remaining hardliners that she hadn’t sufficiently championed their cause and had sometimes at their expense ruled with an “iron fist”.

“I do take exception with the comments that have been made that I am not open and inclusive,” said a conciliatory Wagle in a brief appeal to members before the vote Monday. “Those who’ve served with me know that I support debate. I have never squashed debate.”

Looking ahead, Wagle says she’s ready to tackle the revenue and budget problems that have plagued the state for the past several years. She says while immediate spending cuts will be necessary to close the budget deficit, she’s also open to revenue raising measures.

“I predict we will get down to business rather quickly,” she said. “I think everyone who ran for office is well aware that the public wants a balanced budget.”

Senate Vice President: Sen. Jeff Longbine

Sen. Jeff Longbine’s ability to escape being labeled during his six years in the Senate may have been his strongest selling point for vice president.

The owner of Longbine’s Auto Plaza, a Chevrolet and Buick dealership in Emporia, he doesn’t neatly fit into either the conservative or moderate Republican camps. Rather, he is generally viewed as a reasonable guy who occupies a political space somewhere in between.

Trading on that reputation, he said if elected to the Senate’s leadership team he wanted to dispense with the ideological straightjackets that too often made it impossible to compromise.

“In the past we’ve had different factions within the Senate,” Longbine said. “I would much prefer a realization that we all are diverse people who represent diverse districts and that we need to be more understanding of different viewpoints and make sure that we have an environment where compromise is the goal.”

Longbine defeated conservative House member and senator-elect Gene Suellentrop 23 to 6.

Given the strength of his victory, Longbine is expected to have more influence than traditionally associated with the no. 2 post.

Senate Majority Leader: Sen. Jim Denning

The conservative wave that carried Sam Brownback to the governor’s office in 2010 first landed Sen. Jim Denning a seat in the Kansas House.

He rode a second and even more powerful wave to the Senate in 2012 as one of the conservatives to oust moderate Republican incumbents.

The former CEO of Discover Vision Centers was an early supporter of the income tax cuts that Brownback promised would jump start the Kansas economy. But when revenues plunged instead, Denning became an early defector.

He started questioning the wisdom of the tax cuts, in particular the exemption of more than 300,000 businesses.

“We obviously went (cut) too deep,” he said in October of 2015. “It’s not producing what I thought it would produce.”

Denning’s criticism of the tax cuts and his call to repeal the business exemption separated him from the pack and likely helped him hang on to his seat this year.

Daunting though the state’s budget problems may be, Denning is confident that he can help craft solutions to them.

“I think I’ll supply the steady hand for the caucus and the leadership,” he said Monday. He also suggested there could be tax increases in the offing. “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.”

Assistant Senate Majority Leader: Sen. Vicki Schmidt

Sen. Vicki Schmidt has seen a lot of changes in her 11-going-on-12 years in the Kansas Senate.

Early in her tenure, because of her day job as a pharmacist, the moderate Republican from Topeka chaired the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.

Then came the conservative tidal wave of 2012. Schmidt survived.

But with conservatives firmly in control, she was effectively shunted to the legislative sidelines.

No more.

Monday’s leadership elections -- where Schmidt beat Sen. Julia Lynn 18 to 11 with 2 abstentions -- put her back in the middle of the action as the Senate’s assistant majority leader. It’s one of the clearest indications of the chamber’s shift back to the middle.

Senate Minority Leader: Sen. Anthony Hensley

With almost as many Democratic senators as leadership positions, the elections for minority leadership posts went quickly. Sen. Anthony Hensley was returned as Senate Minority Leader without opposition.

He has been in the Kansas Legislature for what seems like forever, practically his whole adult life. He was first sworn in as a member of the House in 1977 at age 23 and served there for 16 years before being appointed to the Senate. He’s been the Senate Democratic Leader for two decades now.

As such, he’s been a reliable critic of Republican policy positions and the Brownback administration’s handling of the budget in particular. He’s a notable ally of school districts and teachers unions.

He’s got cred on the education front. He’s been a teacher for as long as he’s been in the Legislature and currently teaches government at Highland Park High in Topeka.

As the minority leader, Hensley had a big role in recruiting and backing Democratic candidates for the Senate. All the incumbent Democrats kept their seats. But although several others came close, only one Democrat, Lynn Rogers in Wichita, picked up a seat that had been held by a Republican.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader: Sen. Laura Kelly

Hensley’s compatriot from Topeka, Sen. Laura Kelly, went unchallenged in a bid to reclaim her spot as assistant minority leader. Sen. Marci Francisco bowed out and instead took the post of agenda chair.

Kelly has been the ranking minority member of the Ways and Means Committee for a decade and in that committee has garnered a reputation as someone lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they can work with.

As a close friend of Kathleen Sebelius, she thrived when Sebelius was governor, but has remained a steady Democratic policy voice on the spending committee during more conservative times.

She has been consistently critical of KanCare. And after the sales tax hike that was prompted by a revenue shortfall Kelly blames on the governor, she sponsored a sales tax holiday on food.

This story was produced by KHI News Service, Kansas Public Radio, and KCUR 89-3.