- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - The Kansas House’s new speaker is a former college basketball player, a western Kansas native who started his first small business in elementary school. He’s receiving bipartisan praise in his first weeks in the job for what fellow lawmakers say is a collaborative style.

Ron Ryckman Jr., a 45-year-old roofing company owner, rose quickly when fellow conservative Republicans had firm control of the 125-member House. First elected in 2012, he became chairman of its powerful, budget-writing Appropriations Committee in 2015 and within months left his mark on education funding.

He’s now the top Republican in a chamber that has shifted to center after voters last year showed their discontent with Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s fiscal policies by ousting 19 GOP incumbents, most of them Brownback allies. The majority for Republicans dropped 97-28 to 85-40. Moderates also gained power.

So far Ryckman’s colleagues see him as more than up to the task of managing the chamber’s work as legislators wrestle with closing budget shortfalls projected to total $1.1 billion through June 2019. Already, his committee appointments have boosted moderates’ role.

“He’s one of the smartest guys in this Legislature,” said Rep. John Carmichael, a liberal Wichita Democrat. “He’s a fair man.”

Ryckman is self-effacing about his quick rise, attributing his decisions to run for the House in 2012 and to seek the speaker’s job after last year’s elections to “a temporary lapse of sanity.”

He had a daylong retreat just before the Legislature’s annual session began for Republican leaders and committee chairmen - who include moderates - to “get us to understand each other a little.” He said House leaders spent their first week “working on our listening skills.”

“I like to build things,” he said during an interview. “I like putting things together.”

Ryckman’s predecessor as speaker was Ray Merrick, a conservative Stilwell Republican. Republican House members picked Merrick, an often-terse ex-Marine, after he had served more than a decade in the Legislature. During Merrick’s tenure, Brownback achieved most of his legislative goals as conservatives held a House majority.

“There’s a more inclusive atmosphere,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Fairway Republican. “The previous speaker had the ability to decide what to do and get it done without regard for differing opinions because of the numbers.”

Ryckman was part of Merrick’s leadership team. He helped write a 2015 law that junked the state’s per-student formula for distributing more than $4 billion a year in aid to its 286 local public school districts in favor of more predictable “block grants.” The law, widely panned by educators, is set to expire in July.

“He’s a conservative guy, but it’s a functional conservatism,” Brownback said. “It’s, ‘OK, but we’ve got to get this done.’”

House Minority Leader Jim Ward said Ryckman so far has been easy to work with, but noted that no policy conflicts have yet arisen.

“We’ll see how much he room he gives his chairs to run, in terms of putting bills together and ideas together,” the Wichita Democrat said.

Ryckman grew up in the small southwest Kansas town of Meade, the son of two teachers. His father, also a Republican, served six years in the House starting in 2011, and the new speaker counts him as an important mentor.

The younger Ryckman said he started a lawn-mowing business in third grade, persuading a Sears store to loan him $200 for his own mower the following year and paying the money back over the summer. He said he started a baseball-card shop in Meade in ninth grade.

He attended MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe on a basketball scholarship, graduating with a business degree in 1994.

He worked as a roofer during summers in college; he had people in his hometown ask him to work on their homes after a hail storm, and he dropped plans to attend law school. After a year as a salesman for a contractor, he started his own roofing business in 1996.

“You get a lot of satisfaction out of creating jobs for other people as well and seeing them thrive,” he said. “When folks get a chance to work for you and then move on to other businesses of their own or be successful in their lives, you feel like you’re a part of that.”


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

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