AP Analysis: Fresh faces to influence Kansas Legislature

12/3/2012

By JOHN HANNA

By JOHN HANNA

AP Political Writer

TOPEKA (AP) — Nearly a third of the Kansas Legislature's members will have no previous experience in either chamber when lawmakers convene in January, bringing new energy and less predictability to their next annual session.

The large freshman class is likely to have a big influence over how lawmakers and conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback close a projected budget shortfall and follow up on massive income tax cuts enacted this year. Turnover in the Senate will push it to the political right following the ouster of moderate GOP leaders who'd worked with Democrats to stall initiatives from Brownback and other conservatives.

Some veterans believe that new legislators' impatience will be a significant issue for their leaders and expect some early hitches in drafting policy as lawmakers receive on-the-job training. But Brownback also will have solid majorities of fellow GOP conservatives in each chamber.

In the House, 49 of the 125 members will have no prior legislative experience. Four of 40 senators will have no previous service in the Legislature, though 12 are new to the chamber after serving previously in the House.

"Everybody's going to come in with the attitude of, 'I know what's wrong, and I'm going to fix it' — you know, be a giant," said Sen.-elect Jim Denning, a conservative Overland Park Republican, who's coming off of two years in the House. "We think we're going to get in here and fix it by the end of the day."

Newcomers already were a significant voting bloc as legislators prepared for party caucuses in both chambers Monday to pick new leaders. Candidates for the top jobs in both the House and Senate wooed them and promised open communication and a significant role in policy-making for freshman.

In the House, Republicans retained their 92-33 majority in this year's elections, and 40 GOP lawmakers-elect have no legislative experience. Nine Democrats also are newcomers.

The Senate's party division also remained unchanged, with a 32-8 GOP advantage. But 14 Republicans will be new to the chamber next year, including the four with no legislative experience. Democrats have two new senators, both former House members.

The Legislature has so many new faces partly because of political redistricting. A bitter stalemate between GOP factions prevented lawmakers from approving any redistricting legislation, forcing three federal judges to redraw political boundaries to ensure equal representation.

Also, Brownback's fellow conservatives and allies such as the tea party movement, abortion opponents and the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce made a concerted and largely successful effort to defeat GOP moderates in the Senate.

Conservatives are eager to push legislation that previously stalled in the Senate, such as a proposal backed by Brownback to give the governor and legislators more power over appellate court appointments. There are also initiatives pushed by House members who will be joining the session, such as a measure aimed at allowing concealed weapons on university campuses.

"All those things, I think, are going to be at the forefront," said Sen. Terry Bruce, a conservative Hutchinson Republican in line to become the Senate's next majority leader.

The House also had a big Republican, largely conservative freshman class in 2010. The 34 GOP newcomers were an important factor in the enactment of income tax cuts worth an estimated $4.5 billion over the next six years as a way to stimulate the economy.

Those reductions led legislative researchers to protect a self-induced gap of $328 million between anticipated revenues and existing spending commitments for the fiscal year beginning in July 2013. But incoming GOP legislators are prepared to trim spending, and many also want to pursue other tax initiatives.

They're also likely not to adhere to the vanishing tradition from decades past, that freshman legislators were supposed to remain relatively invisible while being schooled in legislating. Rep.-elect J.R. Claeys, a conservative Salina Republican, said new lawmakers' constituents expect them to be active.

"There can't be a huge learning curve or a year off as we're tackling big budget problems," Claeys said.

And GOP newcomers in the House showed their potential clout by scheduling a weekend meeting in Topeka with candidates for leadership jobs ahead of Monday's voting.

"The freshmen are going to have a pretty big say," said Rep.-elect Travis Couture-Lovelady, a conservative Palco Republican. "We just want to be included in the process right out of the gate."

But Denning and other returning lawmakers said the freshmen are likely to encounter surprises. For example, they said, many proposals on a wide range of fiscal and social issues often require several years' worth of debate before lawmakers are ready to approve them. And experience in business — meeting payrolls and producing budgets — doesn't translate into instant knowledge about state government.

"The bookkeeping is different. The accounting is different. The budgeting is different," said Denning, formerly the chief executive officer of a chain of eye-care centers who served on the House Appropriations Committee.

Yet, Bruce said the large number of newcomers means that some of them are likely to get plum committee assignments.

"There's going to be a steep learning curve," Bruce said. "The test will come first, and the lesson will come later."

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