Republican legislative leaders will likely keep their sometimes combative relationship with Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.
Conservative Republicans maintained their grip on top jobs in the Kansas House and Senate in leadership elections on Tuesday.
That paves the way for lawmakers to restrict the governor’s powers to respond to the pandemic and continued challenges for some top Democratic priorities, like Medicaid expansion.
In the House, Republican Speaker Ron Ryckman won an unprecedented third term.
Traditionally, speakers serve two terms and step down, but Republican Rep. Brenda Landwehr said Ryckman earned a third.
“He knows how to bring us together. He knows how to pull the votes together and get things done,” she said when nominating Ryckman for a third term. “He’s shown his ability to be a good negotiator, even with our governor.”
House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins and Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch were reelected to their jobs.
Senate President Susan Wagle, who’s leaving the Legislature, will be replaced by fellow conservative Sen. Ty Masterson.
After the vote, Masterson said the chamber will remain an obstacle for the Democratic governor.
“Fundamentally, that’s the purpose of this body,” Masterson said, “to be a check on the executive branch of government.”
Masterson said he expects a constitutional amendment on abortion rights — a change that would need approval from voters in the state —to get another shot next year. Lawmakers also might consider tax changes and modifying the law that gives the governor the power to respond to emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.
Republican Rick Wilborn will be the new Senate vice president and Gene Suellentrop will take over as Senate majority leader.
Republican lawmakers have clashed with the governor over her response to the pandemic, specifically her decision to close many businesses early in the pandemic. The two sides eventually reached a compromise where the governor got to keep some of her powers to respond to the pandemic.
Relations between leadership and the governor have warmed somewhat after Kelly said she has no intention of closing businesses again. Lawmakers have since voted multiple times to extend Kelly’s disaster declaration.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer will remain the leader of the Democrats in that chamber.
Democrat Dinah Sykes will take over as minority leader in the Senate, the first woman to hold that job. The current minority leader, Anthony Hensley, lost his bid for reelection last month.
Sykes made headlines in 2018 when she switched parties to become a Democrat. She had been one of the more moderate Republicans in the chamber, and she said Democrats will have a voice, even though they won’t have enough votes to block a veto override.
She said the picks for Senate Republican leadership jobs will make it harder for Democrats pushing Medicaid expansion.
“It is still an absolute, number one priority,” she said in an interview. “It will definitely be difficult.”
The leadership picks will become official when lawmakers convene the 2021 session next month.
Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio – focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.