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Public Ouster Of Kansas House Committee Chairs Stuns Members

Andy Marso
Heartland Health Monitor
Republican John Rubin was stripped of his chairmanship of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee on Tuesday.

This story was updated with additional quotes at 11:17 a.m.

Legislative leaders often use their authority over committee assignments and other perks to reward loyalty and punish insubordination.

But rarely are punishments meted out as publicly as they were Tuesday in the Kansas House.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Republican from Stilwell, publicly stripped fellow Republican John Rubin of his chairmanship of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee just minutes before the House adjourned for the day.

The announcement was swift retribution for Rubin’s role an hour earlier in challenging a decision that Merrick had made the day before: removing a bill from the debate calendar to prevent it from being used to force a floor vote on expanding casino gambling in the state.

Upon learning of his ouster, Rubin stormed out of the House chamber. When asked for a comment as he hurried down a set of stairs to his office, the Shawnee Republican said he planned to resign his seat “effective midnight tonight.”

By Tuesday evening, Rubin had reconsidered.

"I have no intention of resigning,” he said in an interview with KCUR 89.3. “I'm not going to let Ray Merrick have that satisfaction."

Reflecting on the events of the day, Rubin said he believes Merrick singled him out to send a message to other House Republicans.

“It was done with the intent to humiliate me in front of my peers in the House and the public in the gallery and the public at large,” he said. “And to make an example of me to anyone who might dare to think of crossing the speaker again on the rules.”

In a statement, Merrick said he took the action in response to an attempt to “manipulate the House rules” and force a floor vote on a gaming bill that was scheduled for a hearing in committee today.

Merrick said the hearing in the House Appropriations Committee will allow members to better understand the possible financial ramifications of expanding gaming. He said the bill in question could require the state to pay the current operators of state-owned casinos more than $100 million.

Tuesday's incident wasn't Rubin's first tangle with House leaders. His efforts to promote transparencyby challenging rules that allow several bills to be bundled into conference committee reports for which lawmakers must either vote up or down also rankled them. 

Even so, his ouster as the chairman of a committee that has spent hours crafting a package of juvenile justice reform bills left several legislators stunned.

“I’m still coming to grips with it,” said Rep. Blaine Finch, a Republican from Ottawa. “But that was swift. Quite swift.”

Rep. Jim Ward, a Democrat from Wichita, called Merrick’s actions “irrational.”

“He (Merrick) never stands up and argues his ideas,” Ward said. “He just punishes and threatens. That’s not leadership, that’s bullying and it’s happening too much in this building.”

Merrick also removed Rep. John Barker, a Republican and retired district court judge from Abilene, as chairman of the committee that resolves disputes over the House rules. Merrick took the action even though Barker and the committee upheld his decision to pull the bill that could have served as a vehicle for gaming amendments.

Rubin said a growing number of House members are dissatisfied with Merrick’s “dictatorial” leadership.

“I’m partly to blame for that,” he said. “When Ray Merrick first ran for speaker, I supported him and helped persuade others to vote for him as well. I regret that now because I think he’s done a very poor job as speaker.”

Several legislators said Tuesday’s developments were an indication of growing tensions at the Statehouse – tensions caused by ongoing budget problems and deepening differences about how to address them.

Those tensions also were evident Monday when heated exchanges in a GOP caucus prompted Senate leaders to excuse the media and close the meeting.

Before the session began, Merrick removed several members of the House Health and Human Services Committee because of their support for expanding KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program, to cover more low-income adults. 

On the other side of the Statehouse, Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Republican from Shawnee, was removed from her position as chair of the Senate Public Health and Welfare committee after she tussled with Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, over an amendment related to Medicaid expansion. Pilcher-Cook said she offered the amendment with the idea that it would be voted down and send a message to the House that Medicaid expansion was a dead issue.

Jim McLean is a political correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration based at KCUR with other public media stations across Kansas. You can email him at jim@kcur.org.
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