Dem Leader: Protect Schools; Work Bipartisanly

By John Celock

The new leader of state House Democrats in Kansas made protecting the state’s schools and colleges a focus in an opening day address Monday.

Minority Leader Tom Burroughs (D-Kansas City) used his speech to House members to cite the need to work in a bipartisan fashion during this year’s session. While not laying down a specific Democratic agenda, he said that lawmakers should protect what he said were part of the state vision, including education. Lawmakers are expected to tackle changes to the state’s school finance formula and cuts to the state budget this year.

“That vision started world class schools and universities, a vibrant economy and a solid middle class,” Burroughs said. “It is worth protecting.”

Burroughs was elected last month to succeed former Minority Leader Paul Davis (D-Lawrence), who unsuccessfully ran for governor, and formally took office Monday.

Democrats have made education issues a key focus, including during last year’s gubernatorial race, where Davis focused on what he said was the need to put more money into the state’s public schools. Gov. Sam Brownback (R), who was sworn in to his second term Monday, has defended his education record, saying that he has increased state spending on public schools after cuts by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D).

In his speech to House members, Burroughs said that Kansans have been willing to buck national trends on various issues, noting that the state was admitted to the Union as a free state and is the home of the Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision. He also said that past lawmakers in the state have been willing to change previous decisions.

“We’ve never been afraid to forge our own path,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we haven’t made mistakes.”

Burroughs did not specify which decisions he regarded as “mistakes” in his speech.

Burroughs also stressed the need to work in a bipartisan fashion. Republicans hold a dominant position in the House, with 98 seats to 27 for Democrats. Conservative Republicans outnumber moderate members of their caucus.

“Not all good ideas are in one party. Not all good people are in one party. We are all Kansans,” Burroughs said.

Burroughs’ speech came on a day that the House focused on the largely ceremonial and routine, including adopting rules and appointing largely ceremonial committees to formally inform Brownback they were organized or to escort dignitaries during Thursday’s State of the State address. Lawmakers had previously gathered for Brownback’s inaugural, where the governor focused on family issues.

House members formally reelected Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) and Speaker Pro Temp Peggy Mast (R-Emporia) during the session. Merrick and Mast used brief speeches to recognize lawmakers and their families and to stress the work ahead. Merrick noted that he will be “open and candid” with lawmakers and will lead with “integrity.”

“I don’t think anyone fooled themselves that they are coming up here for 90 days of holiday,” Merrick said. “We will be working hard. We have many hard decisions ahead of us. We owe it to the people of Kansas to keep a broad perspective.”