Politics & Government

Suellentrop, Merrick offer differing accounts of Kansas House budget panel shake-up

Rep. Gene Suellentrop, the Wichita Republican who took the reins of the critically important House Appropriations Committee last spring, has been replaced as chair by a Johnson County Republican, the House Speaker’s office confirmed Thursday.
Rep. Gene Suellentrop, the Wichita Republican who took the reins of the critically important House Appropriations Committee last spring, has been replaced as chair by a Johnson County Republican, the House Speaker’s office confirmed Thursday. File photo

Rep. Gene Suellentrop, the Wichita Republican who took the reins of the critically important House Appropriations Committee last spring, has been replaced as chair by a Johnson County Republican, the House Speaker’s office confirmed Thursday.

Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, will take over as chair on the committee, which oversees the state’s budget.

Suellentrop said that he had not been informed of the reasons for the change, which the House Speaker’s office disputes.

Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, similarly said that House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, failed to inform her that she would be replaced as House Education chair.

Suellentrop took over as chairman after Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, stepped down in March. Suellentrop quarterbacked the school finance bill, which had been ordered by the Kansas Supreme Court after school districts sued the state, to passage.

Suellentrop and House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, offered differing accounts on Thursday.

“Your question is ‘Why?’ My answer is: I don’t know,” Suellentrop said around 6 p.m. “I was not offered. That answer will have to come from Ray Merrick.”

The speaker sent a screen shot of a text message from Suellentrop from Wednesday at 5:42 p.m. that stated he did not have the time to serve as chair because his business would be expanding this year and that was the reason for the change.

“Ray, in our conversation in DC, I made mention my business work load will be heavy in 2015. We have numerous new store openings particularly in the first half of next year,” the text message states. “I am not in a position to Chair any committee next session. My business comes first, hope you understand.”

Suellentrop confirmed that he sent the message, but he said it was only after he had learned that he was passed over as Appropriations Chair Wednesday evening after word had begun to spread among Kansas politicos.

He said that Merrick’s chief of staff, Wade Hapgood, had offered him the chairmanship of a different committee and that he declined it.

“The offer for Appropriations was never made. The offer for vice chair for Appropriations was never made,” Suellentrop said in a second phone call. “The offer to chair another committee was made, and that’s when I responded yesterday afternoon.”

He said he had gotten an inkling that Merrick might not continue his chairmanship in the past few weeks and had offered to serve as vice chair when they were attending a conference in Washington earlier this month. He said Merrick did not inform him of his official decision before the news was made public.

“Nobody called me. Nobody told me. Nobody said anything,” he said.

As recently as last month, Suellentrop had been working with Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, on crafting a fix for the state’s budget hole, which will require about $280 million worth of cuts through June and then another $648 million for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Ryckman has been a fast riser at the Legislature, taking over the prestigious chairmanship in only his third year in the House. He served on the Appropriations Committee during his previous two years.

Ryckman wouldn’t comment on why Suellentrop would not be retaining the position, but said that he looked forward to working with him in the coming year. He said he was honored to be given the challenge of chairing the committee while the state grapples with its budget hole.

“Well, there will be some tough decisions. Some that will not be optimal,” Ryckman said about the challenge of closing the budget hole in the coming session. “There will be some Band-Aids, but we really need to look long-term and have certainty for our taxpayers, and our business climate and our citizens.”

The House’s “pay-go” budget rule, which limits the ability of House members to make changes to budget bills on the House floor, makes membership on the committee extremely important in terms of crafting the state’s budget.

Kelley also lost her chairmanship of the House Education Committee. She will be replaced Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego.

Kelley said Merrick had not informed her of the change prior to it being made public.

“I think what is most disappointing is the lack of communication by the speaker himself. The change itself I can certainly live with,” Kelley said.

Merrick responded to Kelley’s complaint in an e-mail.

“While communication can always be improved, when I was reelected, it was a blank slate, and I am making some different decisions,” he said. “Chairmanships are two year spots, just like my speakership. There were no guarantees.”

Highland said he did not actively push for the chairmanship and that Merrick did not specify his reasons for selecting him when they talked.

“He just asked if I would serve and that was the end of the conversation,” said Highland, who explained that he was a former Army platoon captain and knew to accept orders from a commanding officer.

Kelley voiced support for Highland, calling him a man of integrity and character. “He’ll fill the shoes well,” she said.

Highland said he would wait and see what education issues Kansans and committee members wanted to pursue before setting an agenda for the session.

Merrick named Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, as chair of the House Taxation Committee to replace Rep. Richard Carlson, R-St. Marys, who has left the Legislature to take a position with the Kansas Department of Revenue. Kleeb has previously served as Commerce chair and as vice chair of Appropriations.

Merrick named Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, a retired judge, as the new Judiciary chairman, another heavily sought-after position, to replace Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, who did not stand for re-election.

Barker nominated Merrick to serve a second term as speaker when the House convened to choose legislative leaders earlier this month.

Barker, who served as a judge in the 8th Judicial District for 25 years, said not only did he not lobby for the position but that he actually tried to persuade Merrick against choosing him.

“He gave me reasons, and those were between me and him,” Barker said. “And I give him the reasons why I didn’t think – I’m older, I’m not here for a career. I had a career – it’s over with – as a judge. I’m just here to help my constituents and the state, so I may be here two more years. I may be here four, but probably not longer than that.”

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

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