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New members may play big role in Kansas Legislature

The Kansas Legislature will experience its largest freshman intake in more than four decades when the 2013 session opens on Jan. 14, and their influence will be most evident when senators review Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s spending proposals.

For the first time in nearly six decades, newcomers will make up a majority on the budget-writing Senate Ways and Means Committee. The most prestigious and powerful committee in the chamber will have seven new senators among its 11 members, including three who haven’t served previously in the Legislature.

The change in the Senate committee’s makeup reflects a shift of power within the GOP majority, away from moderate to conservative leaders. Each chamber’s freshman class is dominated by conservative Republicans ready to trim spending and keep the state moving toward eliminating income taxes.

“I don’t come in with any particular agenda, other than maintaining zero growth or a reduction in state spending,” said Rep.-elect Mark Kahrs, a Wichita Republican who will serve on the House Appropriations Committee. “We just believe the government has grown too much. It’s too large.”

With conservatives in control and the GOP holding overall majorities of 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House, it is unlikely that Brownback will struggle to win approval for his budget recommendations, tax proposals and other measures, possibly including a plan to rewrite the state’s education funding formula.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, whose 36 years at the Statehouse make him the longest-serving legislator ever, predicted that the Senate budget committee’s Republicans will be “yes men.”

“I think they’ll do whatever Sam Brownback tells them to do,” Hensley said. “I don’t think there will be a lot of questions.”

The new Republican lawmakers said that while they’re likely to embrace Brownback’s goals, they’ll show a lot of independence in haggling over the details. Brownback expects them to push their own proposals.

“Part of the mix changing is for people to come in with a different set of ideas and outlooks, and that’s healthy,” Brownback said during a recent interview with The Associated Press. “What you’re hoping to get out of a citizen Legislature is a lot of expertise in a disparate set of fields.”

The Legislature was virtually guaranteed a big freshman intake when three federal judges redrew the state’s political boundaries in June. Also, the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce and its allies financed independent mailings and broadcast advertising that helped conservative Republican candidates win, ousting eight moderate GOP senators.

The House will have its largest contingent of new members since at least 1970. Forty-nine of 125 members have never served in the Legislature, and 40 of them are Republicans. Another six representatives are returning to the House after a hiatus, including incoming Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican who spent the past two years in the Senate.

Sixteen of the Senate’s 40 members will be new to the chamber, the most since 1993 when there were 21. Fourteen new arrivals are Republicans. The freshman class includes 10 Republicans and two Democrats who have served in the House.

Legislators will confront a projected $295 million gap between anticipated revenues and spending commitments for the fiscal year beginning in July, a self-inflicted budget shortfall tied to massive income tax cuts enacted in May in hopes of stimulating the economy.

Brownback has promised to protect education funding, social services and other core government programs. Legislators have options for offsetting this year’s tax cuts – such as keeping the state sales tax at 6.3 percent rather than letting it drop to 5.7 percent in July as scheduled.

Some new legislators are open to keeping the sales tax as it is – if the state enacts more income tax cuts – but want to cut back elsewhere.

“We’ve got to reduce spending,” said Sen.-elect Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican who will serve on the Ways and Means Committee.”

Joining Fitzgerald on the Senate Ways and Means Committee are new-to-the-Legislature Republicans Jeff Melcher of Leawood and Michael O’Donnell of Wichita. Republicans Tom Arpke of Salina, Jim Denning of Overland Park, Dan Kerschen of Garden Plain and Larry Powell of Garden City also will join the committee fresh from service in the House. Denning will be vice chairman, having served on the House Appropriations Committee the past two years.

“I think there’s been so much hunger for accountability and responsibility,” O’Donnell said, explaining his interest. “For the foreseeable future, the budget is going to be the No. 1 issue.”