- Associated Press - Thursday, December 18, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick has replaced the leaders of committees that draft budget proposals and review education legislation, his office confirmed Thursday, along with appointments filling vacancies in two other key chairmanships.

Merrick spokeswoman Rachel Whitten said Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., of Olathe, will replace Rep. Gene Suellentrop, of Wichita, as chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

The job is considered the House’s top committee chairmanship. It will have added importance after lawmakers convene their next annual session Jan. 12 because the state must close budget shortfalls totaling more than $710 million for the current fiscal year and the one beginning in July.

Whitten also confirmed that Rep. Ron Highland, of Wamego, will replace Rep. Kasha Kelley, of Arkansas City, as the leader of the Education Committee.

Rep. Marvin Kleeb, of Overland Park, will serve as Taxation Committee chairman, and Rep. John Barker, of Abliene, will be the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, handling issues related to the courts and civil lawsuits. Their predecessors, Reps. Rep. Richard Carlson of St. Marys and Lance Kinzer of Olathe, did not seek re-election this year.

Merrick is a Stilwell Republican, and all chairmen are Republicans because the GOP will enjoy a 97-28 majority when the new session opens.

Whitten declined to discuss why Merrick replaced Suellentrop and Kelley.

Suellentrop did not return a telephone message seeking comment. He has served as Appropriations Committee chairman since March, following the abrupt resignation of Rep. Marc Rhoades, of Newton, over disagreements with GOP leaders over education funding issues.

Ryckman said he didn’t seek the job and lawmakers need to “come in with open minds” in tackling the state’s budget problems.

Highland said that as Education Committee chairman, “I’m going in without issues and without agendas.”

Kelley has been a vocal advocate for education measures favored by fellow conservatives, including a new law ending guaranteed tenure for public school teachers and proposals promoting greater school choice for parents.

She said Merrick did not contact her before replacing her. She said she’s fine with “being a foot soldier” because her work in the Legislature is “about the service and not a position.”

“More than anything, I think I’m disappointed in the lack of communication from the speaker’s office,” Kelley said.

Whitten said she couldn’t discuss any potential communication issues.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: https://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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