TOPEKA — Republicans on Monday elected Susan Wagle to be the new president of the Kansas Senate, the first woman to hold court over either chamber of the Legislature.
Wagle, a veteran Republican from Wichita, defeated Steve Abrams of Arkansas City, 23-9.
“I don’t think I was elected because I am a woman. My colleagues elected me because I’m a qualified leader,” she said.
In the House, Stilwell Republican Ray Merrick defeated Arlen Siegfreid of Olathe in a race between Johnson County veterans. Merrick served four years in the Senate, filling the unexpired term of Jeff Colyer when he was elected lieutenant governor with Republican Gov. Sam Brownback in 2010. Siegfreid was majority leader for the past two years.
Wagle said her victory would serve as an inspiration for cancer survivors. She spent most of the summer undergoing chemotherapy for cancer of the body-cleansing lymphatic system, and also had a bout with cancer in 1996.
“It brings hope and encouragement to an awful lot of people who want a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” Wagle said. “That’s the big message we were able to share. There’s life after cancer.”
When the session begins in January, Republicans will outnumber Democrats 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House.
Party primaries in August saw the conservative wing of the Republican Party oust several moderates, including Senate President Steve Morris. In the House, Speaker Mike O’Neal retired after 28 years in the chamber, including two terms as speaker.
Wagle and Merrick dismissed any likely criticism that a conservative Legislature will be little more than a “rubber stamp” for Brownback’s agenda.
“Each and every senator cares about bringing their issues to the table. There’s no such thing as a rubber stamp in the Legislature,” Wagle said.
Legislators enacted sweeping income tax cuts in 2012 that will eliminate taxes for about 190,000 businesses and reduce rates for all individual taxpayers. The reduction in revenue leaves legislators facing the prospects of a budget shortfall next year of more than $327 million.
Merrick said he would instruct committee leaders in the House to work early in the session with Senate counterparts on issues to make the year go as smoothly as possible in what he sees as a difficult session.
“Anyone who’s thinking it’s going to be a cake walk is going to get a surprise,” Merrick, who previously served as House majority leader before moving to the Senate and then back to the House, said.
House Republicans also elected Jene Vickrey of Louisburg as majority leader. He served last session as speaker pro tem and defeated Marc Rhoades of Newton, who served the past two years as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Democrats re-elected Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, as Senate minority leader and Paul Davis, of Lawrence, as House minority leader.
In other Senate leadership races, Republicans elected Jeff King of Independence as Senate vice president and Terry Bruce of Hutchinson as majority leader. In his position, Bruce will help shape the debate calendar by setting the schedule for debate of issues as they move to the Senate floor, in consultation with the Senate president.
Because the House speaker and Senate president are mentioned in the state constitution, Republicans’ selections must be ratified by each chamber once the Legislature convenes its 2013 session Jan. 14, but that’s traditionally a formality. House leaders will hold their jobs for 2013 and 2014, but Senate leaders will retain them through 2016.