TOPEKA — Senate President Susan Wagle is preparing to battle the governor over an anticipated veto and major policy goals in a confrontation she believes the Republican-controlled Legislature will win.
Reflecting on the first six weeks of the session, Wagle said Thursday she was disappointed in a lack of communication from Gov. Laura Kelly. The governor's office says Kelly has an open door and remains eager to find bipartisan solutions.
If there was a honeymoon period, it was short-lived.
The session has featured GOP resistance to the governor's ideas for balancing the budget, and swift action on school funding hasn't materialized as the governor wanted. Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning called Kelly's approach "amateurish" in a debate this week on the Senate floor.
Last week, when the Legislature unanimously passed a bill that eats into available surplus money by paying $115 million into the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, Kelly responded by calling on Republicans to come to the table with "reasonable ideas."
Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, said Kelly's response was "unwarranted."
"She's a governor, and it was a political statement," Wagle said. "There's tension right now between a Republican direction and a Democrat direction on policy and spending in the Kansas statehouse."
Wagle, who is considering entry into next year's U.S. Senate race, led efforts to fast-track changes in Kansas tax law to provide relief for individual itemization and corporations with overseas profits. Kelly, who was elected in November after 14 years in the Senate, is widely expected to veto the "windfall" tax reform, which she compares to the budget-busting policy favored by former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
From Wagle's perspective, the tax bill prevents an unintended tax increase, and a veto would violate the governor's campaign promise not to raise taxes.
"Vetoing that tax bill does not work in her favor," Wagle said.
The two sides are headed for a collision, Wagle said, and the governor needs to work with Republicans to balance her budget. The Senate president also noted that Kelly received just 48 percent of the popular vote.
The governor's spokeswoman, Ashley All, expressed frustration with Wagle's attitude.
"Kansans voted for a change of tone in November, and that is what Gov. Kelly has delivered," All said.
The Senate president said she was disappointed the governor doesn't have regular meetings with Republican leadership. They have had just two face-to-face meetings with Kelly during the session, Wagle said, compared to weekly meetings with Republican governors.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said he has had one conversation with Kelly and a couple with her budget director.
"We’re open," Ryckman said. "We’re here. Happy to sit down."
On the other side of the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley has a different perspective. The Topeka Democrat said he could count on one hand the number of times he met with Brownback in seven years.
Republicans, Hensley said, prefer confrontation to compromise. They should be following the governor's lead instead of drawing lines in the sand, he said.
"She was elected in a Republican state because Republican voters decided to cross over and give her the opportunity to lead," Hensley said. "Sen. Wagle and others have had their opportunities for the last eight years, and they did a pretty poor job of guiding the ship.”
Wagle said she plans to wait until after the session to make a decision about running for the D.C. seat held by U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who isn't seeking re-election next year. She said the race is wide open now that former Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo has committed to his position as secretary of state for President Donald Trump.
"I was hopeful he would stay in the Trump administration," Wagle said. "In the last few days, we've seen how important his role is. It's very encouraging that he has chosen to stay in that position and continue to provide continuity."