Politics & Government

Freshman lawmakers facing contentious, important issues

Reps. John Whitmer, left, R-Wichita, and Blake Carpenter, R-Derby, will share an office and room together during the legislative session. (Jan. 12, 2015)
Reps. John Whitmer, left, R-Wichita, and Blake Carpenter, R-Derby, will share an office and room together during the legislative session. (Jan. 12, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

The three new state representatives from Sedgwick and Butler counties will find themselves at the heart of some of the state’s most controversial issues in their freshman year, ranging from education spending to when to hold elections to how to care for people with disabilities.

John Whitmer of Wichita, Blake Carpenter of Derby and Kristey Williams of Augusta – all Republicans – took their seats in the House on Monday, Day 1 of what looks to be a tumultuous session of budget cuts and restructuring of state priorities.

Whitmer will serve on four legislative committees, including local government and elections.

That puts him on the front line of what could be the biggest purely political fight of the session: a bid to move city and school elections from the spring to the fall and have local candidates run by party instead of at-large.

Whitmer said he hasn’t made a decision about where he’ll come down on that.

He said he leans toward favoring that change for Wichita to boost voter turnout, but he also wants to make sure the change doesn’t hurt the smaller cities in his district, including Haysville and Clearwater, that don’t want their elections buried on the ballot beneath a long list of federal and state offices.

Whitmer is technically the senior member among the three freshmen. He was appointed to replace former Rep. Joe Edwards, who died in August shortly after losing the Republican primary to Whitmer, who then won in the November general election.

Blake Carpenter is one of two Carpenters in the House. The other is Will Carpenter, an El Dorado Republican.

Blake Carpenter will serve on the Education Budget Committee, putting him in the trenches on the particularly contentious issue of school finance.

The committee will have the first look at remaking the school finance formula, which a district court recently ruled was unconstitutionally underfunded.

He said he’s working to learn the ins and outs of school finance and how change could affect his entire district, which includes some of the wealthiest and poorest parts of the Wichita area.

Carpenter replaces Jim Howell, who left the Legislature for a seat on the Sedgwick County Commission.

Williams may have the most thankless job of the three, serving on the Social Services Budget Committee.

Although social services are the second-largest element of the budget behind education, not a lot of legislators want to be on the committee.

“There’s a lot of need but not a lot of dollars,” Williams said.

She was mayor of Augusta for 7 1/2 years and was a teacher for five years, which she said sparked her interest in helping people with disabilities.

Williams said she requested the committee position hoping to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor, Dave Crum, one of the Legislature’s leaders on Medicaid and other health programs for the poor, elderly and disabled.

Reach Dion Lefler at dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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