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Kansas House Changes Up Leadership, Could Clash With Incoming Democratic Governor

Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service
State Rep. Dan Hawkins, left, talks with the man he's replacing as House majority leader, Rep. Don Hineman

The Kansas Legislature showed its tendency to be both more conservative and more liberal on Monday.

The selection of House leaders took the Republican and Democratic factions a bit more to the right and left, respectively, while creating a more polarized Legislature facing Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly.

Republicans, on an 80-4 vote, again picked Rep. Ron Ryckman of Olathe as House speaker. It will be the second two-year term for the conservative in the job.

But the GOP caucus voted to change up its second-ranking spot, elevating Dan Hawkins of Wichita to majority leader over the more moderate Don Hineman on a 48-35 vote.

Democrats turned over their top leadership job of minority leader. Longtime lawmaker Tom Sawyer took over the job from Jim Ward. Both come from Wichita.

Sawyer held the spot in the mid- to late 1990s and was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1998. He lost that race by a wide margin to Republican Bill Graves.

Ward has a more confrontational legislative style than Sawyer and came under fire in his own party for an abandoned run for governor. That run for higher office left his House colleagues feeling neglected in a year that many believe should have produced more legislative wins for Democrats.

Changes in the ranks of both parties mark a slight increase in the polarization of the House. The shifts reflected the choices voters made last month.

“I’m disappointed in how my race turned out, but it wasn’t totally unexpected,” said Hineman, a Dighton Republican.

“Both caucuses moved away from the center,” he said. “As someone who believes that a bipartisan, centrist approach is the best approach to governance I hate to see that. But it is what it is and we’ll work to make it work.”

Democrats maintained control of 40 seats to the Republicans' 85. But Democrats lost a few seats in rural districts, while picking up some in suburban areas. A number of moderate Republicans are gone from the chamber, losing either to conservatives in the primary or to Democrats in the general election.

Every House seat was up for election this year. Seats in the Kansas Senate, elected every four years, come up for election in 2020. A handful of departures from the senate following this year's elections will mean a leadership shuffle in that chamber too. Republican Sen. Vicki Schmidt, elected state Insurance Commissioner, has been serving as assistant majority leader; the governor-elect was assistant minority leader. 

Changes both in rank-and-file and leadership could test Kelly’s powers of legislative persuasion. As a state senator, she had a reputation for compromise. She’s pledged to work with legislative Republicans. She has little choice. Republicans dominate both the House and Senate.

“We’ll look for ways we can work with (Kelly)," Ryckman said, while making it clear that Republicans would have their own agenda.

Credit Nomin Ujiyediin / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
State Rep. Ron Ryckman of Olathe was re-elected speaker of the Kansas House on Monday by fellow Republicans.

“A majority of the state still believes in core Republican principles and we’ll continue to push those forward,” he said.

For instance, the House speaker said he’ll push to transform the effect of federal tax changes into a rebate for Kansas taxpayers rather than collecting a windfall for state government.

“We helped a lot of folks campaign and every one of them — at least the ones that won — talked about returning that money,” he said.

Kelly has said she won’t propose any changes in state income taxes until she has a better handle on whether there’s enough money to fund public schools and respond to other urgent needs. Those possibilities include fixing the state’s troubled foster care program, repaying money borrowed from the state employee pension fund and restoring cuts to higher education and transportation projects.

“It’s a really bad idea to make a lot of (tax) changes until you know what you’re working with,” said in a recent interview with the Kansas News Service.

Conservative control of the House could also complicate Kelly’s push to expand Medicaid coverage to an added 150,000 low-income Kansans.

“Let’s just see how that one goes,” said Hawkins, one of the Legislature’s most vocal opponents of expansion.

Moderate Republican Rep. Russ Jennings of Lakin said expansion supporters may have to get creative. But, he said, they have the numbers to force a vote on the issue.

“We can get anything to the floor that we want … if we have enough votes,” Jennings said.

Jennings said the ouster of Hineman in favor of the more conservative Hawkins indicates that the House Republican caucus has shifted to the right, but only slightly. He said conservatives and Democrats will have to negotiate with moderate Republicans to get anything done.

“The Democrats and more conservative Republicans, neither one have 63 votes,” Jennings said. “That’s what it takes to get business done here.”

For the third-ranking spot in the House, Republicans tabbed Blaine Finch of Ottawa for speaker pro-tem over Kyle Hoffman of Coldwater on a 56-28 vote. Finch garnered backing from conservatives and moderates.

Kelly weighed in only vaguely on Monday’s leadership elections. She issued a statement congratulating the winners, although not by name, and saying she looked “forward to working together with each of you.”

The change in Democratic leadership came from frustration that the party didn’t pick up more seats in a year that seemed at least possible.

“Most people in the caucus thought we were going to gain four or five seats,” Sawyer said. “When we didn’t … there was some disappointment about that. … The political operation just didn't happen because he was running for governor”

Credit Nomin Ujiyediin / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
Democratic lawmakers on Monday chose state Rep. Tom Sawyer as the minority leader of the Kansas House.

He pledged a more strategic approach.

“Rather than take the approach of just being bomb-throwers and oppose everything, we want to be constructive and try to pass good legislation for the people of Kansas,” Sawyer said.

Rep. Tim Hodge of North Newton said he wants to see progress on Medicaid expansion, a reduction in the sales tax on food, and the addition of enough funding to schools to get Kansas out from under a lawsuit.

“We’re gonna stay focused and unified,” he said, “regardless of who our leader is.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a note about Senate leadership and to correct the number of House seats held by Democrats and Republicans according to the recently certified election results

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks

Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.

Kansas News Service reporter Stephen Koranda also contributed to this story. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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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