Kansas legislators convene session with confidence, trepidation

January 9, 2017

By Tim Carpenter


The 2017 session of the Kansas Legislature began Monday with dozens of new lawmakers taking the oath of office feeling a complicated mixture of optimism and dread about dealing with a $350 million budget shortfall, rewriting the school-finance formula and demands for tax policy reform.

The House and Senate convened in the afternoon for what could be a rowdy, tense session extending beyond the typical 90 days. The 165 legislators were elected in hotly contested races during 2016 that showed voter support for more politically moderate Republican and Democratic voices at the Capitol and rising apprehension about the path cut by Gov. Sam Brownback and his GOP allies.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, didn’t dance around the elephants in the room during her remarks to colleagues, friends and family.

“Today, we face a record $350 million shortfall,” she said. “Kansans must balance their budgets and live within their means — they rightfully expect the same of their elected officials. We will soon learn of the governor’s recommendations for addressing this devastating metric. We will roll up our sleeves, and we will get to work.”

Brownback is scheduled to make the annual State of the State address to the Legislature at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Details of the governor’s strategy for fixing the immediate budget deficit and coming to terms with a projected deficit in the fiscal year starting in July will be shared Wednesday with legislative committees and the public.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, called for unity and cooperation among the House’s members “for the common good of Kansas.” He expressed optimism the Legislature would resolve the many prickly obstacles on a crowded agenda.

“Our priorities and goals can be met this session,” he said, “but only if we check our personal political agendas and work toward the collective goal of supporting the best outcome possible for our beloved state.”

He urged peers on both sides of the aisle to “come to work with an open mind and list of fresh ideas” instead of “non-negotiables.”

“We won’t implement each of our ideological views,” he said, “but we will still be heard. We will each bring something to the final product.”

Among Democrats at the Statehouse, Topeka Sen. Laura Kelly said descriptions of harsh choices were accurate, but she sensed inclusion of greater political diversity among representatives and senators would inspire meaningful debate.

“I actually feel reborn,” Kelly said. “I feel like I’m going back to a time when we could work together as a legislative body to craft good public policy and defeat bad public policy.”

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said during his tenure he had worked with many people he agreed with and many he didn’t, but there was “always one common factor, a desire to build a better Kansas.”

“Each of us has been called here because we want to make Kansas the best place to raise a family, grow a business and live out the American dream,” Ward said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said in remarks on the crowded Senate floor that, even after 40 years as a legislator, he was excited to begin the new session. He said priorities would be to resolve the massive budget hole, address school aid, restore “basic fairness” to the tax code, help struggling rural hospitals and strengthen safety nets for vulnerable Kansans.

“I know I speak for our caucus when I express my hope that we will meet these challenges in a spirit of inclusion and bipartisanship,” Hensley said.

Other members of the Shawnee County delegation sounded hopeful — despite the inability of lawmakers to adopt solutions to the state’s revenue woes and clear up legal challenges on K-12 funding.

“I’m an optimist going into this session,” said Rep. Jim Gartner, a Topeka Democrat. “I think we have a great freshman class.”

Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, said turnover in the House could serve to break deadlocks that held back progress on tough issues.

“We can make some positive change, whereas before, we just didn’t,” he said, adding that Kansans had elected “people who want to work together for some commonsense solutions.”

This article was originally published on the Topeka-Capital Journal website, here.