Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick easily won a second term Monday as the chamber’s top leader despite a controversy over his comment in a recent interview that government employees “produce nothing.”
Merrick’s fellow Republicans appeared to ignore complaints from state workers and a public campaign against him from the Kansas Democratic Party. GOP House members and members-elect voted 80-16 to retain Merrick as their leader for the next two years.
Several Republicans said the 75-year-old Merrick built broad support within the GOP by regularly consulting lawmakers on policy and considering their grievances. Also, Republicans gained five seats in this year’s elections, for a 97-28 majority.
“I think everyone respects the job Ray has done here,” said Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a Palco Republican.
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Meanwhile, House Democrats picked veteran Rep. Tom Burroughs, 60, of Kansas City, Kan., to serve as the chamber’s minority leader. The job was open because former Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence gave up his House seat to run for unsuccessfully governor. Burroughs prevailed in a 17-11 vote over Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita.
Lawmakers met at the Statehouse to pick leaders for 2015 and 2016. Merrick’s selection requires ratification by the entire House when members open their 2015 session in January, but that’s considered a formality because of the GOP’s majority.
Merrick, from Stilwell, is a conservative and a strong backer of aggressive personal income tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013 at Repblican Gov. Sam Brownback’s urging to boost the state’s economy. The state now faces shortfalls in the current and next state budgets totaling more than $700 million, and Merrick has said the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.
The speaker made headlines recently after an interview with The Wichita Eagle in which he said government employment doesn’t stimulate the economy.
“Government employees produce nothing. They’re a net consumer. And you got that cost forever and ever and ever because they’re on the KPERS (pension) plan, they’re on all the government insurance and everything,” Merrick said in the interview.
A spokeswoman later issued a statement calling the comments “poorly phrased” and said many state workers make valuable contributions. Merrick said Monday that “logical minds” grasped his larger “Economics 101” point.
“I think people understood the statement I was trying to make,” Merrick told reporters. “I wasn’t saying anything derogatory about state employees. They do things that need to be done.”
Democrats launched a symbolic online petition calling for Merrick’s ouster. But the speaker’s challenge Monday came from Rep. Virgil Peck of Tyro, another conservative.
Peck had a serious gaffe in his past, too. In 2011, he apologized for a joke in which he compared immigrants living in the country illegally to feral hogs as lawmakers studied a plan to allow the animals to be shot from helicopters.