Scott Schwab wanted to remind lawmakers that there’s more to life than what happens in the Capitol.
But the Olathe Republican, who had just been sworn in as a leader in the Kansas House, was emotional.
His voice stopped, he choked on his words.
It had been five months since his son Caleb died. The 10-year-old was killed in August riding the world’s tallest water slide at the Schlitterbahn water park in Kansas City, Kan.
And as he stood in front of a new group of lawmakers, he reminded them that there was more in life than what goes on in the Legislature.
“When your bill dies, or your amendment fails ... let it go,” Schwab said. “Life isn’t worth wasting too much emotional energy on such things. I just want you to know, it could get worse.”
That perspective was one of the first messages the new group of state lawmakers were greeted with as the Kansas Legislature returned Monday for the first day of the 2017 session.
And the Kansas lawmakers sworn into office made it clear that they know they have tough votes, and even tougher decisions, ahead of them.
Legislators returned to work Monday with a budget shortfall to solve and the possibility of a lengthy session ahead of them. There’s a school finance formula that needs to be written and an expected debate over tax increases and a possible repeal of the tax cuts championed by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
But most of the Legislature’s work on the first day of the 2017 session was focused on smiles and celebrations as the new members of the Kansas Legislature were sworn in.
During his speech to House member, Kansas Speaker Ron Ryckman said every person who ran for office knew that the state was facing serious challenges. The Olathe Republican added that lawmakers know that they must do better. School funding, the state’s finances and economic growth were among the major issues the House speaker said would be the key issues of the session.
“We will leave this session knowing we did our best to do what was right for Kansas,” Ryckman said.
A large class of freshmen legislators were among those who officially took office. There are 45 new members in the House, according to the secretary of state’s office, while the Senate has 14 new lawmakers.
The first major challenge lawmakers are expected to face is a roughly $342 million budget shortfall with just six months left in the fiscal year.Through the end of fiscal year 2019, the state is short more than $1 billion, according to state officials.
“We knew what we were running into,” said Rep. Tom Cox, a Shawnee Republican elected in November. “We knew we were running into a shortfall. We didn’t know the exact numbers, but we knew this was going to be rough. We weren’t going to walk into something that was pretty. We were going to walk into something that had a deficit, that had tough decisions coming.”
Gov. Sam Brownback has declined to release his budget plan in the weeks before the start of the session.
The governor will give his state of the state speech Tuesday. State budget director Shawn Sullivan is scheduled to talk to lawmakers about the governor’s budget Wednesday morning.
Questions about the state’s tax policy, and the ongoing financial issues in Kansas, are expected to be debated by legislators in the days ahead.
New freshmen lawmakers, including moderate Johnson County Republicans and Democrats, ran on platforms of fixing budget issues and advocated for an end to the state’s LLC exemption.
That 2012 move by the Kansas Legislature took roughly 330,000 limited liability companies off the state’s tax rolls.
Rep. Brett Parker, an Overland Park Democrat, described his feelings Monday as being a mixed bag.
The teacher from the Olathe school district said he was encouraged by the makeup of the Legislature, which is expected to be more moderate, but still concerned by the budget problems facing the state.
But he said he was ready for the challenge of putting the state in a better place.
“This is why I ran,” Parker said.