An organization intended to give south-central Kansas a unified voice in the Legislature got off to a divided start for the upcoming session after a partisan battle over who would lead it.
For the first time in its history, the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation will head to Topeka next week without a leader for the opening of the annual session.
That came after a heated debate over whether enough members showed up Thursday to select a chair and vice chair — and accusations that Republicans could be trying to steal the lead position from the Democrats, who are due to have one of their members rotate into it this year.
As things stand now, the selection of delegation leaders will happen at the group’s first meeting at the Statehouse in Topeka. The date and place of that meeting is yet to be determined.
The vote to delay was recorded as a 16-6 split along partisan lines. About half the members of the delegation attended the meeting where the vote was taken.
Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, proposed the delay in choosing the group’s leaders, saying he wanted members who couldn’t come Thursday to have a voice in the selection.
“Then everybody’s participating,” he said. “You want as many people participating in the process as possible.”
Fellow Republican Blake Carpenter, a representative from Derby, then expanded Masterson’s motion to have the delegation choose its leaders in Topeka every year.
The plan drew a heated response from Democratic Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau of Wichita. She said if the absent members wanted to vote, they should have come to the meeting.
“That does not ride with me anymore of saying other members aren’t here,” she said. “Well hell, I’m here and that’s part of our duties once we are elected. . . I could be home packing, I could be spending time with my daughters, I could be doing a variety of things, but I’m here.”
Masterson replied that it was a lot easier for Faust-Goudeau to come to the meeting than it is for others, because it was in her neighborhood at Wichita State University.
“With all due respect, Oletha, not everybody lives in this district,” he said.
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said it looked like the Republicans were maneuvering to keep the Democrats from chairing the delegation.
“We had that battle two years ago and four years ago,” Carmichael said. “Four years ago we abandoned the practice of bipartisanship and two years ago we decided that wasn’t a good idea and we said let’s put it back . . . so we rotate (the chair) on a bipartisan basis.
“I understand from what the good senator (Masterson) said that perhaps he might want to take that up and maybe change that rule when we get back into session. . . . We don’t need to do that.”
Rep. Henry Helgerson, a Democrat who’s been in the Legislature off and on since the 1980s, tried to defuse the situation by reminding the others of the history and purpose of the delegation.
“It was all done with the idea of trying to be unified and working together in order to be more effective for all of our sides, Democrat, Republican, Sedgwick County and the area around us,” Helgerson said. “I am concerned that my friends at both tables, we are dividing ourselves before we’ve even been sworn in.
“I would suggest that we all take a step back,” he added. “If we end up dividing ourselves right now, it’s going to be a long session.”
There is precedent for Republicans breaking rotation so more of their members could serve as chair.
It happened in 2015 when the Republicans rejected the rotation system and passed what came to be called the “Brunk rule” after then-Rep. Steve Brunk, who proposed it.
Under the Brunk rule, Republicans could use their superior numbers to select one of their own as delegation chair every year.
The rule was dropped in 2017 and Rep. Brandon Whipple, a Democrat, served as chairman that year.
And in 2018, the top job rotated back to Republicans on schedule with Sen. Gene Suellentrop as chair and Democratic Rep. Ponka-We Victors as vice-chair.
Neither Suellentrop nor Victors were at Thursday’s meeting.
Suellentrop had arranged for Rep. Susan Humphries to chair the meeting because he couldn’t attend due to another commitment. Victors was being treated for a wrist injury and was at the hospital Thursday, Carmichael announced.