Congratulations to state Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, for making history to become the first Wichitan and the first woman elected to lead the Kansas Senate. Monday’s 23-9 vote by her fellow GOP senators was a powerful endorsement of Wagle’s record and leadership potential and a milestone for the state and the south-central Kansas legislative delegation – as well as confirmation that it’s a conservative new day at the Statehouse.
Monday’s 49-43 vote for Rep. Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, as House speaker was notable, too, given that he was just re-elected to the House last month after two years in the Senate.
It was long past time that the state’s largest city claimed the Senate’s top job. And it says something about the changing state that the new leaders of both chambers now come from the population centers of Sedgwick and Johnson counties.
Wagle’s elevation to the Senate presidency also says something remarkable about her strength as a person. She recently went through chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and has refused to let two bouts of cancer deter her from her principles or legislative goals.
Now, Senate President Wagle and Speaker Merrick must demonstrate an ability to lead, rather than just follow Gov. Sam Brownback. Impatient with the resistance to his sweeping agenda shown by the moderate Republicans controlling the state Senate, the governor partnered with the Kansas Chamber of Commerce to engineer a conservative takeover of the Senate in the GOP primary. Suspicions are that the Senate and House now will give the governor whatever he wants on judicial selection, tax cuts, school finance, guns on campus, abortion and much more.
It’s of further concern that Merrick and Wagle have such strong ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which pushes states across the nation to pass its model conservative legislation. Merrick and Wagle serve on ALEC’s national board of directors, and she was national chairwoman in 2006. But the impetus for whatever the Kansas Legislature passes should come from Kansas, not from out-of-state ideologues.
Wagle’s 22-year record also includes some misguided crusades, including an embarrassing assault on a human sexuality class at the University of Kansas. As Senate president, she’ll need to avoid such tangents, and pursue a broad agenda.
Especially with economists forecasting a $327 million shortfall in fiscal 2014 as the massive new tax cuts take effect, Kansans will be counting on Wagle and Merrick to balance the state’s obligations and revenues with care, and with respect for the gap between current funding and the actual funding needs of social services and public education.
As impressive as Wagle’s big move appears to be, both for her and for Wichita, it will be bad for Kansas if 2013 marks the start of lockstep governance at the Capitol, with no room for dissent or true debate.