Prairie Politics

Who are the budget factions in the Kansas House?

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, left, talks with Rep. Mark Kahrs R-Wichita, after the Kansas House recessed Wednesday morning.
House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, left, talks with Rep. Mark Kahrs R-Wichita, after the Kansas House recessed Wednesday morning. The Wichita Eagle

There’s getting to be a lot of flavors of Republican in Topeka, quipped Rep. John Edmonds, R-Great Bend, on Tuesday.

He’s right.

Republicans hold 97 of the 125 seats in the Kansas House, but have struggled to find consensus on tax policy. They’ve broken into factions that are having their own meetings.

The Senate has passed a tax plan, but the House has yet to take a vote on it as leaders are still working on building consensus.

Moderates and conservatives have battled for supremacy within the Republican party for years, but the division in the House this year is more complex, with four main groups.

There are the self-identified moderates, about 20 House members who are generally opposed to Gov. Sam Brownback’s agenda, and there are the conservatives who follow the lead of House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, who are seeking a resolution to the budget shortfall as soon as possible.

Other conservatives have split off into two groups:

The Rhoades/Kelley caucus

One group of about 35 conservatives has coalesced around Reps. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, and Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City. They want more budget cuts and they want to keep an income tax break for business owners that was established in 2012.

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Wichita members of the Kansas House of Representatives including Rep. Kasha Kelley (left), Rep. Dennis Hedke (right center) and Rep. Steve Brunk (far right) gather after the House recessed Tuesday afternoon. Bo Rader The Wichita Eagle

This group has been called the Rhoades caucus or Rhoades/Kelley caucus because of its leaders. It has also been called the “Rebel Alliance,” because some members wear pins for the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars, and the “Red Pen Brigade,” because some members have taken to wearing red pens in their front pockets to signify their desire to cut the budget.

A member of the group jokingly called it “the Confederacy of Crazies.” These lawmakers say they are the Legislature’s true conservatives.

Rhoades said some members within his group won’t vote for any tax increase, but he has recommended they support the plan passed by Senate conservatives.

Another group of about 25 Republicans follows the lead of Reps. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, and Steve Johnson, R-Assaria. They have called for business owners to go back on income tax rolls as part of a tax plan along with other tax increases. They also have resisted the Senate’s push to couple the budget fix with policies such as public dollars for private school scholarships and requiring local governments to seek a public vote if property tax revenue rises more than the rate of inflation.

This group has resisted the push to cut the budget further.

The Hutton/Johnson group

This group has been called the Hutton group or Hutton/Johnson group. Hutton is personally uncomfortable with that name, but he sits in the chairman’s seat when the group meets and appears to run the meetings. Some members of the group have also referred to it as the “reasonable group” and “the rational conservatives.”

Both groups have been holding their own meetings in Topeka recently, separate from the House GOP caucus meetings. Moderate lawmakers have been doing the same thing since the beginning of the session.

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Rep. Erin Davis of Olathe; Rep. Steven Johnson, Assaria; and Rep. Mark Hutton, Wichita, meet after the Kansas House recessed Wednesday morning. Bo Rader The Wichita Eagle

Reporters walked into the end of a meeting of Hutton’s group Tuesday night. He said representatives from the two groups have been meeting with each other and House leaders in hopes of finding a compromise plan.

“Are we there yet? I wish,” Hutton said. “But I think, you know, we’re chipping away at it and it’s better than before when nobody was talking…We’ve been grinding away on what we agree on and working our way on what we don’t and seeing what common ground we can find.”

Hutton praised the speaker, majority leader and the budget and tax chairs for facilitating talks between the two factions.

A compromise?

House leaders said they hoped to have a compromise plan ready sometime Wednesday.

“We’re getting closer, pulling together their differences as we can,” said House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg.

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House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, left, talks with Rep. Mark Kahrs R-Wichita, after the Kansas House recessed Wednesday morning. Bo Rader The Wichita Eagle

The sticking points have been whether to include business income tax as part of a solution and some of the policy pieces in the Senate bill.

Vickrey said the House may vote on a “trailer bill” that addresses some of the concerns with the Senate bill before acting on the Senate bill. “That is the first thing you learn in politics. You want to make sure you have the ability to hold your position before you give the keys of the car to somebody else,” Vickrey said. “We’re going to make sure we get what our members want and then negotiate from there.”

Rhoades compared the process to legal mediation and said he’s optimistic that they’ll find a consensus.

“I’ve said to my group, never close the door,” Rhoades said. “Right? You can’t close the door. You might not agree. You might leave the room upset, but always come back because that’s the only way we’re going to get out of here.”

Hutton said he had tried to engage moderates earlier in the process to support his plan to put business owners back on the income tax rolls, but was rebuffed. “They’ve chosen not to participate,” he said.

Reps. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, and Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, disputed Hutton’s assessment. They said they contend that all of the tax plans being pushed by the other Republican groups are designed to protect “the march to zero” and continue income tax cuts in the future.

Rooker said lawmakers need to go back to the 2012 tax cuts to fully address the problem. Clayton agreed.

“We want to do the surgery. They want to put on a band-aid,” Clayton said.

Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, a moderate, pointed out that there's another group of lawmakers and they're growing in size, "the absentee caucus," the lawmakers who have stopped showing up every day in Topeka.

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