ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
When Don Dahl heads to Topeka next month to begin his 11th legislative session as state representative for the 70th District, he’ll have additional duties to attend to.
The conservative Republican from Hillsboro was selected by his colleagues Dec. 4 to be speaker pro tem of the Kansas House of Representatives.
In the leadership structure of the House, that makes Dahl second in power to the newly-elected speaker of the house, Melvin Neufeld, a Republican from Ingalls.
“Power? There’s no power,” Dahl said with a smile. “Somehow this beast keeps rolling along, and you just try to guide it.”
House leadership-which includes the speaker of the House, speaker pro tem, majority leader and minority leader- exercise that guidance by monitoring which legislative proposals will be brought to the floor for a vote and which will not.
Much of that is exercised through the various House committees that determine the future of proposed legislation.
Last week, Dahl met with fellow House leaders to assign colleagues to the 16 standing committees in the House, and to appoint the chairs and vice chairs of those committees.
Dahl said the process is more complex than simply ensuring that fellow Republicans preside over each committee.
“We also go down to conservative and liberal,” he said. “Depending on what the issue is, we’ll gain Democratic support and lose Republican support, and vice versa.”
Dahl said House leaders decide what they hope to accomplish during the legislative session, then structure the appropriate committee to help ensure the desired results.
“We sometimes stack a committee,” Dahl said. “We want to make sure that a committee we put in has the votes we need to get our pet bills through the House chamber and over to the Senate.”
Beyond that significant responsibility, House leaders also determine the seating arrangement in the legislative chamber and assign office space and secretarial services.
“We have to determine who can live with whom in their space,” Dahl said. “Do we want to put a liberal with a conservative, or do we want to put a strong conservative with a new liberal to influence him?
“We also look at the mentoring program we have for new members,” he added. “Do we want the new guys to be mentored by a liberal or a conservative?
“It gets complicated.”
Dahl said when he was encouraged by fellow House members to throw his hat in the ring for speaker pro tem, it wasn’t necessarily because of his political ideology.
“You get elected because people think you’re fair,” he said. “If you’re a conservative and you have a majority of conservatives, they might vote for you on your political persuasion.
“What helped me a lot to get elected to this position is that I’ve spent a lot of time as chair of the committee as a whole when we’ve run bills through and debate bills on the floor.”
One session he moderated involved the education bill. It lasted some 14 hours because of “150 amendments” that representatives wanted to attach to the bill.
“You have to let everybody talk and speak to the bill and keep track where we are in the process,” Dahl said. “It was a long day.”
But when it was over, the House minority leader publicly thanked Dahl for his impartiality and fairness in the chair.
“It’s nothing, really,” Dahl said. “It’s just treating people with common courtesy and respect.
Four years ago, Dahl allowed his name to stand for House majority leader. When he lost by one vote, he was fully prepared to find fulfillment in his regular committee assignments, including his role as chair of the Commerce & Labor Committee.
“I didn’t have a long-range strategy to run for this position (speaker pro tem), but sometimes you have a strong feeling about something you’d like to see changed,” Dahl said.
“One of the things I felt strongly about-and a lot of members did, too-is to make the train run on time. People who served on my committee, we started at 9 o’clock every day. We didn’t waste time. I respect other people’s time.”
He said members who also were discontent with time management practices urged him to run for speaker pro tem.
“To me, there was nothing to lose, but a lot of people were pressuring me to run,” Dahl said.
He decided at a late date to go for it, ran a low-key campaign that included sending out a letter to fellow caucus members outlining his goals and making a few phone contacts.
Dahl won by a large margin.
“Some people call it a stealth campaign,” he said with a smile. “I’m glad it’s over, and glad to know who’s going to run the show.”