TOPEKA — Sen. Susan Wagle became the first Wichitan and first woman elected president of the Senate on Monday.
Incoming Senate Republicans cast 23 ballots in her favor, giving her a decisive win over Arkansas City Republican Sen. Steve Abrams, who received nine votes.
Her election, along with the election of Hutchinson Republican Sen. Terry Bruce as majority leader and Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, as vice president, could bolster Gov. Sam Brownback’s conservative agenda, which is likely to include re-examining income taxes, changing how appellate court judges are selected and moving to prevent unions from automatically taking union dues from workers’ paychecks.
Wagle downplayed her role as the first woman in the Senate’s top post while highlighting that she is the first to come from Wichita and that she’s probably the first cancer survivor to hold the job.
That means a lot to survivors, said Wagle, whose hair has begun growing back after successful chemotherapy treatments last summer for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the body-cleansing lymphatic system.
“I know there are an awful lot of people who are looking for a reason to live right now and a reason to go that extra step and it teaches us to go that extra step, do what you have to do and fight for life,” she said.
Wagle, 59, said women are typically better communicators, and she plans to find ways to work with all lawmakers.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said he worked with Wagle 10 years ago when conservatives partnered with Democrats to get new district maps approved and two years ago when the two factions partnered to pass a budget that limited cuts on social services.
Hensley said Brownback will likely have a great deal of influence on Wagle, but he said Wagle has “an independent streak.”
“She hasn’t always gone along just to get along,” he said. “She’s her own person.”
Senate president is one of the most powerful positions in the Legislature. The president plays a primary role in deciding which bills will get a vote on the Senate floor and, along with other legislative leaders, picks who will head each of the 18 standing Senate committees.
Wagle served in the House from 1990 until being elected to the Senate in 2000. She ran as the lieutenant governor candidate with then-Sen. Jim Barnett in 2006.
She served as chairwoman of the Senate committee on commerce during the 2012 session. She has been known as an anti-abortion activist and for her role criticizing the Kansas Bioscience Authority, which ultimately led to an audit and the ousting of its director.
Jason Watkins, a former House representative who is now a lobbyist for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, said Wagle has had her share of battles in the Senate.
“I think Susan has learned over the years to build coalitions,” he said. “That’s an art learned over time.”
Watkins said the chamber will be working to retain historic tax credits and other tax credits that may be targeted as lawmakers discuss taxes. He said Wichita and its special projects, such as Affordable Airfares and aviation research funding, should be bolstered by Wagle’s leadership.
“I think Wichita as a community is in a better position than it has been in years,” he said.
Wagle’s election marks a sea change in the Senate.
The chamber has been led by Hugoton Republican Sen. Steve Morris since 2005. But conservative Republicans, led by Brownback, campaigned against so-called moderate Republicans and ousted eight incumbents in the August primary, advancing more conservative candidates.
That support could be key. Many lawmakers and observers expect the Legislature to vote to change how appellate court judges are selected, to try to eliminate automatic union dues and to address immigration policy.
Lawmakers are also poised to re-examine the massive income tax cuts approved earlier this year. That could lead to controversial votes to extend a 6/10ths of a cent sales tax and eliminate tax credits and deductions to lock in income tax cuts without creating major budget deficits.
Wagle said she would like to let the sales tax expire, but she’s not sure if that’s possible given the budget deficits created by income tax cuts.
Bruce, the newly elected majority leader, said he expects the Senate to vote fairly quickly on changing how appellate court judges are selected.
Currently, a nine-member, independent nominating commission selects three candidates for the governor to choose from. Conservatives have unsuccessful pushed to have the governor appoint appeals judges, subject to Senate confirmation.
Bruce said he also expects Republicans to target a “paycheck protection” bill that would require union members to sign up to have dues taken from their paychecks that pay for the union’s political activity.
Hensley called the bill “paycheck deception” because union members are well aware that they pay dues for political activities to maintain workers rights.
Bruce and Wagle both said they expect an extensive debate about how to adjust the massive income tax cuts Brownback signed into law earlier this year.
The tax cuts eliminate income taxes for many small businesses and farms and reduce individual rates. They are projected to force lawmakers to cut more than $300 million in spending in 2014.
“Me personally, I have a philosophy that we need to eliminate as many deductions as politically feasible in order to get the lowest possible marginal rate,” Bruce said. “You spread out your tax base that way and you don’t penalize productivity.”
He said he views extending the 6/10ths of a cent sales tax as a tax increase, but he said it could be justified if it further reduces income tax rates for individuals.
But that would likely create a messy debate over the mortgage interest deduction that benefits homeowners and the earned income tax credit that benefits poor working families that lawmakers trudged through in the 2012 session.
“They’re not easy votes,” Bruce said.