Statehouse Shake-Up: The story behind the demotion of a Kansas lawmaker

TOPEKA, Kansas (KSNT) — Shake up at the statehouse: Tuesday, KSN’s sister station KSNT reported two House committee chairs were removed from their positions after trying to force a vote on the floor.

Wednesday, KSNT News dug deeper into the issue that led to their swift removal.

Senate Bill 415, a measure relating to public records, is at the heart of this controversy.

When Representative John Rubin attempted to bring that bill up for debate in the House of Representatives Tuesday, he had another motive in mind.

“To try to restore horse and dog racing, gaming, at our racetracks in the state of Kansas,” said Rubin.

A small gambling provision in the bill would have allowed debate on that issue, but Rubin says House Speaker Ray Merrick did not want that to happen.

“This is a pattern that’s not just yesterday. The Speaker viewed his election as Speaker as akin to making him King of Kansas. He believes that no bill should ever emanate from the House that he doesn’t personally approve of and support, and I think that’s wrong,” said Rubin.

Rubin believes that’s why he was removed as the Chair of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.

“It was done to humiliate me and to make me an example to other House members that might ever dare to challenge him and his operating fast and loose with the rules, and I have no doubt about that,” said Rubin.

The exact measure Rubin wanted to discuss went before the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday morning.

Some say it could have numerous economic benefits.

“The biggest one is about 4,400 jobs, and most of those jobs come as a direct result of opening those race tracks and running them as expanding gaming racetracks,” said Dr. Art Hall, and Economist for the Greater Kansas Racing Alliance.

But others say that expansion could have big consequences for the state, because of contracts the state signed in 2007 to limit gaming in Kansas.

“There were guarantees placed in statute and the contracts with those casinos that there would not be further expansion of gaming,” said Whitney Damron, a Lobbyist for Kansas Entertainment LLC.

If lawmakers choose to move Rubin’s bill forward, it could breach those contracts and cost the state upwards of $100 million.

In a statement, House Speaker Ray Merrick cited that as a primary reason for the shake up:

Today there was an attempt to manipulate the House Rules and pull a bill out of committee despite a hearing on the issue in House Appropriations scheduled for Wednesday. This is a complex issue.  There is the possibility that expanding gaming in Kansas could result in the state being forced to pay over $100 million to the current operators of the state owned casinos.  An opinion on the legal details has been requested from the Attorney General and we are currently waiting on his legal perspective. This isn’t a decision we should take lightly at any time, but especially in light of these circumstances.  The Appropriations committee will give this issue a fair hearing and will allow both sides to make their case.  At this time and with a very heavy heart I am compelled to make the following committee changes.”

In December, several House members were also removed from committees because of their support for Medicaid expansion.

It is well within the power for the Speaker of the House or the Senate President to take that action as they see fit.

Both leaders are elected by the members of their individual chambers.

The Speaker of the House isn’t the only one to make changes to committees recently.

Just last month Senate President Susan Wagle removed Mary Pilcher-Cook from her position as chair of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.

Wagle said Pilcher-Cook broke Senate rules by attempting to add an “Anti-Obamacare Amendment” to a bill.

Senator Michael O’Donnell now serves in the position of chair.

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