The challenges aren’t new to Ron Ryckman.
But from here on out, they are his to try to solve.
As the new speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives, he has not one but two budget shortfalls ahead of him.
He has a governor who is waiting until January to release a budget solution, a move lawmakers say makes it more difficult to plug the financial hole.
And he has a Legislature filled with new names and faces that campaigned against the vision Gov. Sam Brownback helped push through the last few years.
Asked why he even wanted to be the House’s leader during the state’s financial strains and struggles, Ryckman just smiled.
“That’s a great question,” he said.
Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, was chosen Monday to become the next speaker. He beat out Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican, for the top spot.
The promotion gives Ryckman the ability to set the agenda in the House. He’ll also have control over committee assignments, according to the speaker’s office.
“We need the process to work,” Ryckman said. “I’m excited about our new members. I’m excited about a lot of returning members. Almost everyone to a T is here to solve problems. I’m looking forward to hearing every and all solutions.”
The Olathe Republican struck a tone of openness shortly after his win. And though he was seen as the more conservative of the two candidates up for the speakership, Ryckman emphasized to reporters that “everyone’s voice needs to be heard.”
He’s open to any and all ideas, he said. And while slim on specifics of how it will be done, Ryckman said, “we’re going to balance the books.”
“We’re going to have as open a process as possible,” Ryckman said. “We’re looking for transparency and accountability. We’ll see what comes out of committees.”
The Legislature’s Republican caucus pulled toward the middle earlier this year after moderate candidates successfully campaigned against some of Brownback’s signature policies, including his 2012 tax cuts that took around 300,000 limited liability companies off the state’s tax rolls.
“The things that people ran on, and won, those are things that the state and this caucus needs to have a debate on,” Ryckman said Monday.
The state is facing a roughly $348 million budget shortfall with seven months left in the fiscal year. An even larger shortfall of $582 million awaits after July.
The state Supreme Court’s decision in the Gannon v. Kansas school finance case is expected in the months to come. That case could put the state in a further financial pinch.
Brownback has said he will not solve the budget shortfall on his own. He has instead opted to wait until January to present lawmakers with a plan to fill the budget gap.
This won’t be the first time Ryckman has been put in a difficult political situation. As House budget chairman, he played a key role in shepherding a school finance plan to fruition during June’s special session.
“He knows we need some solutions in the state,” said Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican. “He is here for the right reasons, and that’s what he wants to accomplish, a sustainable financial solution for the state.”
Ryckman won 57 of the 85 votes cast to succeed Rep. Ray Merrick as speaker. The term is set to last for two years. Rep. Jene Vickrey, a Louisburg Republican, had planned to run against Ryckman for the top spot, but the current House majority leader dropped out before the vote started on Monday.
Jennings, the moderates’ candidate for the speakership, gave a short speech Monday that seemed to squash any idea of a moderate coalition of Republican and Democrats working to elect a different speaker in January.
“Our caucus, as we all know, has been deeply divided for a number of years,” Jennings said after Ryckman’s win was announced. “The time has come for the division to end. The time has come to turn the page and to be one caucus.”
Merrick, who had served as speaker since 2013, decided not to run for re-election this year and retired from the Legislature.
After watching Ryckman win the speakership, Merrick praised his fellow Johnson County Republican’s qualifications for the job.
“It’s probably the best person they could have picked for that job,” Merrick said. “He knows the numbers better than anybody in this building.”
Other leadership jobs
In a surprise, House Democrats ousted a party leader just a month after picking up around a dozen seats on election day.
House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, lost to Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita. The 21-19 vote elevated Ward, a vocal and constant critic of the Brownback administration, to the highest Democratic leadership post in the House.
“I can’t recall in any modern times where a Democratic leader chose to do his job in the manner that we were successful in picking up 13 seats, only to have a member of the caucus challenge him,” Burroughs said.
Both parties made leadership selections during meetings Monday in Topeka.
Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican, was chosen to be speaker pro tem.
Schwab, whose son Caleb died in August while riding the Verrückt water slide in Kansas City, Kan., was given a round of applause after his win was announced.
“We have good diversity on our leadership team,” Schwab said. “So we’re going to be able to come up with great solutions. And I think some of them are going to be bipartisan if the Democrats want to help with the trajectory of the state. But the best thing that I can say is, Republicans aren’t split. And not too many people have been able to say that for the last couple decades.”
Rep. Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from Dighton, was picked to be House majority leader. Moderate Republicans made gains in both the House and Senate during the August primary, but Hineman said those labels should be put aside. The House will have 45 new members in the upcoming session, according to the secretary of state’s office.
“The numbers dictate that we’re all going to have to come together as Republicans and forget those labels that kind of restricted all of us in the past,” Hineman said. “We’re going to have to find solutions and it’s not going to be easy.”
Senate Democrats held steady and chose to keep Sen. Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, as House minority leader.
Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, was picked to become the senate’s majority leader. He’ll work alongside Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican picked to be Senate vice president.
Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, was re-elected as the Senate’s president. The three Republicans helped present a plan “to better Kansas” shortly before the election that called for fair taxation. There will be 14 new members in the Senate.
“The newly elected body is very anxious to sit down and resolve our budget issues,” Wagle said. “They know that’s why we were elected and they’re willing to take tough votes.”