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Some stranded legislators see snow days as ‘working vacation’

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, at 5:38 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, at 11:14 a.m.

The Capitol building, usually bustling with activity, was almost entirely empty on Tuesday and Wednesday. The House and Senate suspended activities during the snowstorm that blanketed the state.

Despite the weather, a few legislators, such as Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, still went into the Capitol briefly on Tuesday to take calls from constituents and send e-mails. But for the most part, Hawkins has been holed up at the Ramada Topeka Downtown Hotel.

“There was probably close to 30 of us in the (hotel) restaurant last night. We all ate together and sat around and talked. There’s a lot of camaraderie that goes on, there really is,” Hawkins said.

Many legislators spend weeknights during the session at the Ramada. Some of them, like Hawkins’ roommate, Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, chose to drive back home Monday night before the storm hit.

Hawkins, on the other hand, stayed in Topeka. “It can be fun, but I’ve got to tell you, I can’t wait for session to get back going,” Hawkins said.

“I’m not used to being stuck somewhere like this,” he said. “I had a person call me this morning and ask me if I was getting cabin fever yet. And I said, ‘I think so.’ I’m ready to get back out.”

Hawkins predicted that the Legislature will have to make up for time lost this week. He said his Pensions and Benefits Committee had major business scheduled for Wednesday that possibly would be dealt with on Friday instead. The committee is in the process of tweaking pension reforms that would go into effect in 2015.

For his part, O’Donnell has been snowed in, too, in Wichita.

“I haven’t left my house yet,” O’Donnell said in a phone call around noon Wednesday.

Rep. Roderick Houston, D-Wichita, another Ramada guest during the storm, called his stay this week “a working vacation.” Houston said the two-day gap gave him an opportunity to catch up on reading legislation and returning e-mails and was a rare chance during the session to relax.

“I’m just kind of taking it easy for a little bit until I get back to work.”

Rep. Ponka-We Victors, D-Wichita, also stayed in Topeka. She and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, rent a house during the session.

As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, her street had yet to be plowed, she said in a phone call, so Victors has spent the day trying to dig a pathway for her car. Faust-Goudeau went back to Wichita, so Victors has been going it alone.

“I’ve been shoveling my driveway all day for about three hours, trying to make a way so I can get to work tomorrow,” Victors said while taking a break to drink hot chocolate. “Whether rain or shine, I do have to make it to committee in the morning at 9 a.m. … I know my vote matters.”

The House Federal and State Affairs Committee, of which Victors is a member, was originally scheduled to consider a bill on Tuesday and Wednesday that would give public and private employees the right to refuse service to same-sex couples for marriage-related business based on religious beliefs. Victors has been an outspoken opponent.

Victors said that she was using “girl power” to clear the snow.

She’s without cable and Internet in Topeka, so it’s almost like weathering a storm in the frontier days, Victors joked.

Except for the fact that she has an iPhone, of course.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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