History-making leaders are chosen for Kansas Legislature

Johnson County’s Ray Merrick emerged from a three-way race and became Kansas House speaker Monday.

Meanwhile, a Wichita lawmaker became the state’s first woman to preside over the Senate.

Merrick defeated fellow Johnson County lawmakers Arlen Siegfreid and Lance Kinzer to take the helm of the House.

“The times in which we live demand our 2013 agenda to be aggressive to include education, tax and judicial selection along with budget reform,” said Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican who spoke in support of Merrick.

“Ray Merrick embodies the skills we need to tackle the challenges before us today and prepare for those that await us tomorrow.”

Merrick, 73, was only available for abbreviated comments after the vote.

He is completing the unexpired state Senate term of Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and in November was elected to a term in the House.

The conservative Republican, who is active in the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council, stressed that he has no specific agenda as he steers the direction of the House.

The exchange council has been accused of being a vehicle for corporations to write laws in closed door meetings away from the Capitol and out of the public spotlight. Supporters say it is a research tool that allows legislators to talk with colleagues from around the country and companies that do business in their state.

Legislative observers said they think Merrick is Johnson County’s first House speaker since 1982, when Wendell Lady held that position.

While Merrick has occasionally sparred with some Overland Park leaders in the past, especially over the city’s decision to annex new territory, his ascension to House speaker is seen as a big plus.

“It’s a major opportunity for Johnson County,” said Tracey Osborne, president of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce.

Merrick succeeds Rep. Mike O’Neal, a combative Republican lawmaker from Hutchinson who left public office to lead the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile, across the Capitol, senators elected Republican Susan Wagle as that chamber’s president.

Although Wagle, 59, makes history as the state’s first woman Senate president, she thinks her election is more meaningful in another way: She is a cancer survivor.

“I know there are an awful lot of people who are looking for a reason to live right now and a reason to go that extra step,” said Wagle, who underwent chemotherapy treatment last summer for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Wagle, a conservative Republican, takes the helm of the Senate from Steve Morris, who led a band of moderate Republicans that often teamed with Democrats to battle Gov. Sam Brownback’s initiatives. Many of those moderates were knocked out by conservatives in this year’s elections.

While Brownback figures to exert more influence in the Senate with so many moderates gone, a leading Democrat said Wagle has demonstrated an independent streak.

“She hasn’t always gone along just to get along. She’s her own person,” said Sen. Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who was re-elected Monday as his party’s minority leader.