Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, announced today that he is leaving the Legislature and won’t seek re-election to the office he’s held for 28 years.
O’Neal made the announcement at the “sine die” ceremony in Topeka, which marks the end of the annual legislative session.
O’Neal praised his House colleagues and the state for giving him the chance to serve in the most powerful position in the House — the second or third most powerful spot in state government.
“The opportunities I’ve had here have been beyond my dreams,” he said.
In this year’s session, O’Neal has been the point man in the Legislature shepherding conservative tax policies and election reapportionment plans supported by Gov. Sam Brownback.
He has taken several controversial actions, including passing into law a sweeping tax bill that the more moderate Senate had approved as a placeholder bill to open tax negotiations with the House.
He also blocked Senate-approved redistricting maps that would have favored moderate Republican Senate incumbents over potential conservative challengers. The action bucked decades of tradition of each house drawing its own districts and has thrown the 10-year reapportionment of the state into a federal court, where O’Neal appeared as both lawyer and witness in hearings earlier this week.
O’Neal urged colleagues to be serious about the state’s business, but “don’t take yourselves too serious.”
He indicated he plans to be active in state affairs in some capacity. “Know that I plan to be close by,” he said.
Late Friday, Gov. Sam Brownback issued a statement calling O’Neal “a great Kansas leader.”
“As Speaker, O’Neal was passionate and principled, yet always willing to listen and consider new ideas,” Brownback’s statement said. “Speaker O’Neal will be greatly missed.”
In the just-concluded session, O’Neal carried the banner in the Legislature for many of the governor’s policies and had become a lightning rod for moderate Republicans and Democrats.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, served as a senator about 20 years ago. He said then, O’Neal was considered a moderate-to-conservative lawmaker.
Ward said when he returned to the Legislature in 2003, O’Neal had moved to right, a trend that continued toward the “extreme conservative” stances he’s taken this year.
Ward said a major turning point was the 2010 election that brought 33 freshman representatives, about 25 of whom are extremely conservative. Ward said that forced O’Neal to tack further to the right.
Ward said the best indicator of the changes in O’Neal’s leadership came on the tax bill, when he took the rare step of cutting off debate to prevent the Senate from having time to vote it down. Opponents of the tax plan and independent analysts project that it will force the state into deep budget shortfalls and/or major cuts to education and social services.
“I think people will remember that,” Ward said.
However, Ward said he appreciated O’Neal’s earlier work serving as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s a mixed record,” he said.
Lawmakers from both sides of the Capitol said O’Neal’s departure could lead to better relations between the staunchly conservative House and the Republican-dominated but less conservative Senate.
This year, the House and Senate have been locked in controversial fights over taxes, spending and reapportionment, which spilled into virtually all areas of the legislative process.
“I think it (O’Neal’s retirement) opens up the possibility of more positive interaction,” said Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard. “Some of this regrettable situation was personal. The speaker and the president of the Senate, they just did not have much of a relationship.”
Kelsey said he was not surprised that O’Neal would not seek re-election to the House.
He would have had to step down as speaker because of a two-term limit on that office, and “it’s pretty hard to go from being speaker to being a regular representative,” Kelsey said.
Ward said he thinks the direction of House-Senate relations will depend heavily on the outcome of this November’s election.
He said he expects the strained relationship to continue if the House remains staunchly conservative and the Senate stays moderate.
But that could change if moderate Republicans or Democrats replace a significant number of House conservatives; or alternatively, if conservatives make good on their efforts to unseat Senate moderates and wrest control from them, Ward said.
Ward said the likely candidates for the speakership include Majority Leader Arlen Siegfreid and Rep. Lance Kinzer, both Republicans and both from Olathe. Rep. John Grange, R-El Dorado, has also indicated interest in the post, Ward said.
He said the speaker reflects the majority of the majority caucus.
“If the caucus is extremely conservative, the speaker will be extremely conservative,” Ward said.