Election shakes up power dynamics
As Sam Brownback’s interest and power in Topeka waned during his final months as governor, legislative leaders stepped in to fill the power vacuum in Topeka.
But when Democrat Laura Kelly takes control of the Kansas governor’s office in January, her presence will shake up a Capitol power structure that’s been in place for years.
Under Brownback and Jeff Colyer, Republicans exercised extraordinary power, often muscling bills through the Legislature that horrified Democrats.
Those days may be over. Although Republicans still enjoy large majorities in both the House and Senate, Kelly’s ability to veto legislation will change the relationship between the Legislature and the gover- nor’s office.
The power dynamics will be different. Republicans and Democrats will take on new roles during Kelly’s time in office.
Here’s a look at a few likely power players during the new administration.
Democrats in the Kansas Legislature will find themselves playing a key role next year.
Although they’re a minority, they will exercise outsized influence because Kelly occupies the governor’s office.
For much of the past few years, a major role of Democrats in the House has been opposing legislation sought by Brownback. Through floor speeches, amendments and procedural maneuvering, they often tried to slow down or change bills.
While some of that will probably still take place, they will spend more time trying to develop compromise bills that Kelly will sign.
Take, for example, Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat. He often speaks on the House floor and is usually quick to have a colorful comment
about the legislation or news of the day.
But the role of Carmichael — and other Democrats, too — may shift now, after several years of opposing Gov. Sam Brownback’s agenda. There will be more negotiations and attempts to compromise on legislation.
Carmichael predicts Kelly’s presence in the governor’s office will result in legislation that is overall more moderate.
“The role for Democrats will be different with a Democratic governor, and quite frankly, I think it places more responsibility on Democratic lawmakers,” Carmichael said.
On the Senate side, Democrats continue to hold nine seats. In that chamber, though, the Republican caucus remains much more divided between moderate and conservative senators.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said neither faction will be able to get the votes needed to pass legislation without
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, may be Kelly’s sharpest foil.
Wagle, a staunch conservative, is in her last term in the Senate and has been a vocal voice for conservative budgeting in the Legislature. She seems destined to clash with Kelly, who has proposed increased funding for state services.
The two have been together in the Senate for several years, but often on opposing sides.
Wagle predicts Kelly will be a liberal spender, and she cast doubt on Kelly’s hopes of expanding Medicaid.
“I know a more much more liberal Laura Kelly than the people of Kansas know, since I’ve worked with her for a few years,” Wagle said.
Wagle is promising to act as a check on Kelly, including on education funding after Kelly promised to be “the education governor.”
“We have put the lion’s share of state income into one basket: K-12,” Wagle said, adding that districts can “barely absorb” the additional funding already approved.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, often keeps his cards to close to the vest.
Ryckman and Wagle will be the two most-powerful Republican lawmakers, but they have sometimes taken different approaches in the past. Ryckman has at times been less outspoken than Wagle, who would clash publicly with former Gov. Sam Brownback.
Ryckman’s quieter approach may put him in a position to act as a key Republican negotiator with Kelly. He’ll also be someone who will help keep tempers cool even at times of sharp disagreement.
Ryckman’s power may be bolstered because Republicans picked up a seat in Tuesday’s elections, and the House Republican caucus also became more conservative — setting up a significant check on Kelly.
“Voters know we’ve done the heavy lifting to balance the budget, reduce debt, and get the economy going again — people value the good work we’re doing,” Ryckman said in a statement.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, will be Kelly’s man in the Senate.
Hensley, the longestserving lawmaker in the Legislature, has been in the Senate since before Kelly joined the Chamber in 2005. Though Democrats are in the minority, Hensley is a master of the chamber’s procedures and rules — knowledge that he sometimes wields to slow down or thwart Republican legislation.
Hensley also has a good working relationship with Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican. He may end up serving as a bridge between Kelly and Wagle.
“I’ve always been able to negotiate Susan Wagle, she’s a personal friend of mine,” Hensley said.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, entered the Senate at the same time as Kelly and has a close working relationship with her. That’s important because McGinn chairs the Senate’s budget committee, which will sort through Kelly’s spending proposals.
“We always had to come to some kind of consensus compromise” McGinn said of working with Kelly in the past. Kelly is the highest-ranking Democrat on McGinn’s committee.
McGinn and Kelly share similar views on some budget priorities: both want to improve road funding, spend more on the Department for Children and Families and cut sales tax on food.
KATHY WOLFE MOORE
Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City Democrat, is the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. Kelly’s agenda to expand Medicaid, boost education funding and provide additional dollars to other parts of state government will almost certainly have to pass through that committee.
Assuming she remains in the post, she’ll be Kelly’s top voice on the committee and will be in the thick of negotiations over spending.
“It’s just going to be different,” Wolfe Moore said. “Tell you the truth, I’ve had eight years of Sam Brownback . . . that’s all I’ve known.”
She added later: “It’s going to be different. Different good.”
Speaker after the election, Wolfe Moore noted the “middle’s kind of gotten carved out a bit,” with moderate Republicans losses in the 2018 election cycle.
That could make things more polarizing in the Legislature, she said.
Contributing: Hunter Woodall and Bryan Lowry of The Star