TOPEKA — House Speaker Ron Ryckman and House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer faced no opposition from colleagues to retain their legislative leadership positions Monday, while partisan caucuses in the Senate led to selection of Republican Ty Masterson to serve as president and Dinah Sykes to be the chamber’s Democratic leader.
The choices are significant because Republicans holding positions of House speaker and Senate president control committee appointments, assignment of bills to committees, the calendar of legislation debated on the floor and have a larger platform to advance a legislative agenda. Major issues during the upcoming session are likely to include abortion, taxes, judicial selection, Medicaid expansion, response to the pandemic and redrawing legislative district boundaries.
The approach by Democrats and Republicans in the House was to affirm the status quo. Several retirements, the departure of GOP moderates and a top Democrat’s election loss in November forced the Senate to simultaneously fill the four most prominent posts for the first time in decades.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly congratulated the newly selected leaders of the Legislature, which has two-thirds GOP majorities capable of overriding her vetoes.
“I look forward to working together on the issues that matter to Kansans: funding schools, keeping Kansans healthy and increasing access to affordable health care, building a stronger infrastructure and continuing down the path to economic recovery,” Kelly said.
Ryckman, an Olathe Republican who grew up in rural Kansas, was granted a third term of two years as House speaker. Typically, House speakers in Kansas serve a maximum of two terms in that role.
Wichita GOP Rep. Brenda Landwehr endorsed Ryckman for another term as speaker, citing his ability to bring together members of their party. She also took an opportunity to reprimand Kelly, a former state senator from Topeka.
“He knows how to work with each one of us and he does bring us together,” Landwehr said. “He knows how to pull votes together and get things done even with our governor who for some reason continues to act as a minority member of the Senate rather than the leader.”
Masterson, an Andover Republican who has led the conservative Truth Caucus at the Capitol, describes himself as an anti-abortion, limited-government, low-tax legislator who believes the Legislature must be a check on the executive branch. He’s been a member of the Senate and House since 2005. He will replace retiring Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican who didn’t seek re-election.
“I was honored to get unanimous support. So, I hope it brings unity to our caucus,” Masterson said in an interview. “I think fundamentally that’s the purpose of this body, is to be a check on on the executive branch of government.”
Sen. John Doll, a Garden City Republican, nominated Masterson to serve as president of the Senate.
“We need a strong leader probably more than any time in our lifetime anyway,” Doll said. “We need a Senate president we can come to and perhaps disagree with and not feel like we’re going to be punished by getting our committees taken away or our chairmanships taken away if we happen to disagree respectfully.”
GOP senators, including some voting by proxy due to COVID-19, elected Sen. Rick Wilborn to be the Senate’s vice president. He’s a McPherson Republican and has led the Senate Judiciary Committee. He replaced Sen. Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican who didn’t seek re-election to that post. In addition, Republicans in the Senate selected Sen. Gene Suellentrop, of Wichita, to be the chamber’s majority leader. He replaces retiring Sen. Jim Denning, a Johnson County lawmaker who didn’t seek re-election after angering GOP colleagues for working on Medicaid expansion with Kelly.
On the Democratic side of the ledger, Sykes of Lenexa was chosen by her peers to be the Senate’s Democratic leader. She has served in the Senate since 2017 and was originally elected as a Republican, but quit the GOP due to policy differences. Sykes moves into the slot held by Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, who is the longest-serving legislator in Kansas history.
“While the Republican Party enjoys the majority of the seats, I’m confident that the majority of Kansans share our values: affordable health care, exceptional education and good jobs for hard-working people,” she said.
Over in the House, Ryckman retained his role as House speaker and two legislators who came to the House with him in 2013 kept their leadership jobs. House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, of Wichita, and Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, of Ottawa, will return to those slots when the 2021 session begins in January. None faced opposition in the Republican caucus.
Hawkins was nominated by Rep. Will Carpenter, an El Dorado Republican, who kept his nomination speech brief.
“Hawkins has the qualities which we should all look for in a leader,” Carpenter said. “A man that we can trust that has integrity and works hard. He upholds our conservative values.”
Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat who currently serving as House minority leader, was re-elected to that post without opposition.
The final voting for these top Kansas legislative leadership positions won’t be conducted until the session officials starts next month. Republicans hold large majorities in the House and Senate, but generally these final votes are unanimous in both chambers.
Returning and new members of the Legislature traditionally convene in December to decide which members of their political parties hold jobs of House speaker, majority leader, speaker pro tem and who leads Democrats in the House. GOP senators pick a president, majority leader and vice president as well as a minority leader.