Politics & Government

Republicans, Democrats in south-central Kansas delegation clash over control

Republican lawmakers changed the rules Thursday to cement their control over chairmanship of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation. Democrats protested that the move was mean-spirited and threatens bipartisan unity on issues affecting the Wichita area.

The local group of House and Senate members had alternated its chairmanship each year between Republicans and Democrats, regardless of which party held the majority.

When the rules change passed at a delegation meeting, two Democratic representatives walked out and didn’t vote on the chair and vice chair positions.

One returned later to hear requests for legislative support from local educational and government agencies.

The rules change came after a tense debate over the purpose of the organization and the fairness of the way it selects its leaders.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said Republican control of the delegation leadership year after year would abandon a system that has allowed lawmakers from the region to present a united and bipartisan front in the Capitol for more than 30 years.

The delegation has had success on issues such as funding for the National Institute for Aviation Research, the National Center for Aviation Training and the fair fares program that subsidizes low-fair airline service to Wichita.

“It sends an important message that what we do is more important than petty politics,” Ward said. “This is petty politics. This is excessively partisan, mean-spirited and small-minded, and you know it is.”

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, who proposed the change, said alternating the chairmanship was not fair to the more numerous Republican members of the delegation who would have to wait longer than Democrats to get to serve as chair of the delegation.

“I think a lot of people would like to have an opportunity to do this. They just don’t get that opportunity under this existing system,” he said.

The final vote count on the rule change was unclear, but split mostly on party lines with at least a couple of Republican abstentions.

Ward and Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, raised a series of procedural objections during the voting process and walked out after the rules change was approved.

Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, was chosen as chairman to replace outgoing Rep. Jim Howell of Derby, also a Republican.

Rep. Brandon Whipple, D-Wichita, was chosen vice chairman of the delegation.

Carmichael returned after the votes on chair and vice chair. Ward didn’t come back.

Whipple initially joined them in criticizing the change but backed off after he was selected vice chair of the delegation.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.