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Five Johnson County lawmakers to watch during the 2017 legislative session

The stately rotunda of the Kansas Capitol in Topeka is the center of a statehouse filled with legislative drama. Five lawmakers from Johnson County are worth watching as the session progresses in the coming weeks.
The stately rotunda of the Kansas Capitol in Topeka is the center of a statehouse filled with legislative drama. Five lawmakers from Johnson County are worth watching as the session progresses in the coming weeks.

Kansas is short on money.

Budget cuts, or creative financial moves, will have to be made in the coming months by state legislators. And a slew of Johnson County lawmakers will be at the center of those discussions in the Kansas Legislature.

From leadership positions to vocal advocates on hot-button issues like education funding and guns on college campuses, Johnson County lawmakers run the gamut in the state Capitol.

These are five of the lawmakers who will help shape the discussion in Topeka during the 2017 legislative session.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning

Overland Park’s Jim Denning made it clear in his campaign that he wanted to see one of Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature tax policies thrown out.

And now Denning is part of a Senate leadership team that has openly criticized Brownback’s policies and budget proposals in the early days of the 2017 session.

“There’s a lot of pressure on leadership,” said Denning, the newly minted majority leader of the Kansas Senate. “But what I want to do for the caucus is just let them know that there is a path out of here and there’s a path to stability and getting out of the newspaper on the negative side and trying to stay in the newspaper on the positive side.”

Before retiring and focusing on his work as a lawmaker, he was CEO of Discover Vision Centers. He’s still on the board of the group and works as its vice president, according to his website.

Denning said he collects and restores retro Plymouth Road Runners and brews his own beer when he’s home from the Legislature.

But in Topeka, Denning has been vocal about repealing the LLC exemption, an income tax pass for roughly 330,000 businesses in the state. He served in the House in 2011 and 2012, before taking over his Senate seat in 2013.

And the Republican doesn’t seem to mind that the campaign promise of repealing the loophole directly conflicts with the governor’s continued promise that the tax cuts are working and that the LLC exemption should stay on the books.

“It’s no different than being in the private sector when something’s off track,” Denning said. “I’ve been managing in the private sector for probably close to 30 years, so I’ve managed through many recessions. Managed through a couple of (crises). This doesn’t feel any different to me.”

House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said he doesn’t always agree with his Republican counterpart.

But Denning creates legislative options for lawmakers, he said.

“I know he’s a diligent student and intelligent individual,” Hineman said. “He’s one of the best in the Legislature at rooting out alternative solutions.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman

Johnson County lawmaker Ray Merrick handed off the role of Kansas House speaker to Ron Ryckman late last year.

And along with the gavel and seat in the House, Ryckman inherited a budget shortfall of almost $350 million and a lead role in a Republican caucus that has become fractured between moderates and conservatives in recent years.

But in little more than a month since he was elected speaker, Ryckman said it’s about bringing the “temperature down” in the room.

“We haven’t had the real contentious issues yet,” Ryckman said recently. “But we’re hopefully laying a foundation to...turn the temperature down so we can turn our ears up.”

The Johnson County lawmaker, who runs a roofing business, had served as the House budget chairman before becoming speaker. He first started serving in the House in 2013.

The conservative Olathe Republican played a key role in shepherding a school finance solution through Topeka during last June’s special session.

He said the perspective he took during that tumultuous time has shaped how he’s approached the host of issues facing lawmakers this year.

His work in that situation gave him confidence, he said.

“We were faced with a situation where schools were going to close,” Ryckman said. “The temperature was sky high. Almost unhealthy. Everyone was saying we couldn’t get it done. It was going to be a three-week torture, and we solved it in two days...we did a lot of homework. Talked to a lot of people and brought a lot of people to the table. There was compromise. I think we’ve modeled how we can handle the situations we have now.”

Brownback told reporters recently that he liked Ryckman’s style.

“He is an easy guy to work with and a guy that you can get to ‘yes’ with because he’s constantly searching for ‘how do we make this work?’ ” Brownback said. “He has an ideology, but he’s a conservative guy. But it’s a functional conservatism, it’s, ‘OK, but we’ve got to get this done.’ 

Ryckman played college basketball at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe. He said he can still take his mind off work through the sport and tries to play every so often.

And Ryckman said he can still dunk.

But even as the Legislature resumes, and he starts his new job as speaker, Ryckman said getting home is still important to him.

On some nights, he coaches one of his kids’ basketball teams. And he makes sure to watch his high school freshman kid’s games as well.

“Being home energizes me,” he said.

Sen. Barbara Bollier

Barbara Bollier grew up with Nancy Kassebaum, the longtime U.S. senator from Kansas, as a presence in her life.

After all, she says, Kassebaum was a sorority sister of her mother’s.

“She sends me notes,” Bollier said about Kassebaum. “It’s nice.”

For Bollier, a retired anesthesiologist, the Senate job is one that has long-standing family ties.

Sitting in her office recently in Topeka, the Mission Hills Republican recalled how her mother used to spend her time trying to get moderates elected.

And these days, her daughter is one of the leading moderate voices in the Kansas Senate.

Bollier has championed a repeal of the campus concealed-carry handgun law for state colleges and universities that’s scheduled to take effect July 1, and has joined other Senate Republicans in their poor reception of the governor’s recent budget proposal.

“In the state of Kansas, there is clearly a split,” Bollier said. “We really have two Republican parties. We have a moderate Republican party and we have a conservative.”

Bollier, who had served as a state representative since 2010 before winning a seat in the Kansas Senate last fall, talks about viewing politics from the perspective of a medical doctor.

She tries to see the other points of view, the short-term lapses that could lead to problems down the line.

“Too often, legislators are only looking to the next election,” Bollier said. “That is very unfortunate for constituents. It’s absolutely not where I come from.”

She’s not so worried about the short term, she said.

“That’s why I can stand up and say something,” she said.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, described Bollier as a mentor to her.

“She is what we would call a professional expert,” Clayton said.

While she doesn’t have a leadership position in the Senate, Bollier said she’ll continue to carve out a role in what many see as a more moderate Legislature than past years.

“Politics in this country has gone too far to extremism on either side,” Bollier said. “The people, what they’re looking for, are problem solvers and people who will talk to everyone and find this place that you come to where you balance.”

Rep. Brett Parker

Brett Parker wouldn’t mind if this year’s session wrapped up before the heat of summer sets in.

That’s because he’s hoping to make it back to Johnson County to teach summer school.

Parker was one of roughly a dozen Democrats to pick up seats in the November election. He edged out incumbent Republican James Todd as part of small wave of Johnson County Democrats that won seats in the House.

“I just didn’t want to sit on the sidelines,” Parker said. “I felt like 2016 was going to be a make-or-break year for Kansas.”

Parker said he studied to teach high school history, but the 31-year-old now works in the Olathe School District as an English language teacher for elementary students still learning the language.

And it was the Overland Park Democrat’s interest in school policy, he said, that led him to run for office.

“We like our school board quite a bit in Olathe,” Parker said. “It’s very pro-public education, teachers and school board I think 99 percent of the time are looking for the same things and what’s best for students and the community. But we were just going in circles because we could only do so much at the local level.”

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said Parker brings excitement to Topeka.

“He just regenerates my batteries because of that enthusiasm,” Ward said.

And in the early days of the session, Parker has tried to keep constituents up to date with constant tweets about the inner workings in Topeka, all while learning the ins and outs of committee work.

He’s said he’ll teach whenever he gets a chance — on breaks from the Legislature and when time allows.

But a goal of his during the next few months, he said, is “to do the job” and help the state find a long-term fix to the state’s budget woes.

“If it’s two years and we get this done and people of the 29th House district elect someone else in 2018, then I can feel good about getting us back on track,” Parker said. “I didn’t run to do this forever or to avoid any hard decisions the entire time. If getting us on the right path to long-term stability and responsible budgeting is what I get to do in two years, then I can go home and sleep at night. There are worse punishments than not giving up five months a year at home.”

Rep. Melissa Rooker

Melissa Rooker describes herself as being a sort of ninja warrior for education legislation in Kansas.

The Fairway Republican lives on the same Johnson County street where she grew up.

And as education funding has become a controversial topic in Topeka, Rooker has become a frequent face in the K-12 funding debate.

“People look to me,” Rooker said about local education issues. “They know that I know my stuff and that I’ll shoot them straight, so to speak.”

Before she was a vocal advocate for improved funding for Kansas schools, Rooker and her husband lived in California.

They worked with Clint Eastwood, the famous Hollywood actor. Rooker’s husband eventually became a producer.

Rooker loved to read, and she went from being a story analyst to becoming a vice president of development at Eastwood’s production company.

But life in Los Angeles began to wear on the couple, Rooker said, and they decided to come back to Kansas to raise their kids.

“It just was very complicated out there,” she said.

After returning to Kansas in 2004, Rooker became involved in local advocacy by working with the PTA program at a local school. And in 2013 she won election as a state representative

Rep. Tom Cox, a freshman Republican lawmaker from Shawnee, described Rooker as “fantastic.”

“I think she’s going to be very impactful in those conversations and debates,” Cox said about school funding debates this session. “We’re lucky to have her in them.”

Most of the recent attention on Rooker’s stems from how she handled school funding issues during June’s special session.

Rooker was one of a handful of lawmakers who helped the Legislature find an immediate fix for the funding dilemma that could have led to schools being closed at the end of the month.

“It’s taken some time to build to a place where I can be considered a credible voice when it comes to education,” Rooker said.

And she said a more moderate House, which counts new moderate Republicans and Democrats among its ranks, has helped change the tenor of the public education debate in Topeka.

“We’re not out of the woods,” Rooker said of the Legislature’s work. “But I’m very optimistic with the group of people that are here, the numbers are much more solid in favor of our public school system.”

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw