- Associated Press - Monday, December 5, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Moderate Republicans regained some of the power they had lost in the Kansas Legislature during conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s tenure, capturing key leadership jobs ahead of tough debates next year over education funding and the state’s persistent budget problems.

While Republicans picked conservative Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., of Olathe, as the next House speaker, they named one of the chamber’s most visible moderates, Rep. Don Hineman, of Dighton, as the new majority leader.

In the Senate, President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, easily beat back a challenge from the right, and fellow Republican Sen. Jim Denning, of Overland Park, was unopposed as the new majority leader. Both are conservatives but have broken with Brownback on fiscal issues.

The results of the secret balloting at the Statehouse by returning legislators and lawmakers-to-be elected last month reflected the significant losses in this year’s election by conservative Brownback allies. Hineman said the election resulted in voters engineering “a return to the center.”

“That’s traditionally where Kansas is governed from,” Hineman said. “Folks thought we had veered too hard to the right.”

Kansas is facing a projected shortfall of more than $345 million in its current budget, and gaps in funding for existing programs totaling $1.1 billion through June 2019. Also, legislators are awaiting a Kansas Supreme Court ruling on whether they are providing enough aid to the state’s public schools to provide all children with a suitable education.

The state has struggled to balance its budget since Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging in an effort to stimulate the economy. Even some GOP voters concluded that the tax-cutting experiment has been a bust, though Brownback blames slumps in agriculture and energy production for the state’s budget woes.

Brownback issued a statement congratulating the new leaders, adding, “I look forward to working with all legislators.”

Each full chamber must ratify Republicans’ choices for House speaker and Senate president once lawmakers convene their annual session in January. But those requirements have been mere formalities for decades.

The House speaker’s job was open because incumbent Ray Merrick, a conservative Stilwell Republican and Brownback ally, did not seek re-election to the Legislature. Ryckman has been the House Appropriations Committee’s chairman for two years, making him part of Merrick’s leadership team.

Ryckman has played a big role in budget and school funding legislation, and his supporters in the speaker’s race portrayed him as a pragmatic deal maker who can work with lawmakers of different philosophies. House Republicans chose him on a 57-28 vote over moderate GOP Rep. Russ Jennings, of Lakin.

The vote suggests that with 40 Democrats in the 125-member House, they and GOP moderates could form governing majorities on some issues. But Ryckman pledged to have an open leadership, take ideas from a wide range of sources and allow a debate on rethinking some of the Brownback tax cuts.

The incoming speaker pointed to school funding legislation approved with large, bipartisan majorities during a special session in June, and said, “I think we modeled how to work together.”

House Democrats also signaled that they’ll be more aggressive by ousting Rep. Tom Burroughs, of Kansas City, as minority leader in favor of Rep. Jim Ward, of Wichita. The vote in Ward’s favor was 21-19, even though Democrats had gained seats.

Ward has long been a vocal critic of Brownback and Republican initiatives, and he’s often been more visible than Burroughs.

In the Senate, Wagle faced a challenge from Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, a conservative Andover Republican who’s been a reliable ally of the governor and a strong defender of his tax cuts. The vote among GOP senators and senators-elect was 23-7, with one abstaining.

“We have a distinctly different body than we had last year, both in the House and the Senate,” said moderate Republican Sen. Jeff Longbine, of Emporia, elected Senate vice president.

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

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