When he was tapped to lead the Social Services Budget Committee this year, Rep. Brian Weber became perhaps the youngest budget committee chair in state history, according to an expert at the State Library of Kansas (precise records only go back to the 1940s).
When he was tapped to lead the Social Services Budget Committee this year, Rep. Brian Weber became perhaps the youngest budget committee chair in state history, according to an expert at the State Library of Kansas (precise records only go back to the 1940s). House Speaker Ray Merrick said he selected the 30-year-old Dodge City Republican for the job because he "is an extremely capable and sharp legislator...because he has an ability to quickly understand complex issues. He is a common sense conservative and a valuable voice for western Kansas." House Minority Leader Paul Davis said in Weber's short tenure he has demonstrated willingness to think independently of the GOP party line. "I don't see him as an ideologue," said Davis, a Lawrence Democrat. "I do think he's fairly pragmatic and somewhat of a traditional Western Kansas Republican." 'Fair and approachable' Rep. Barbara Ballard, another Lawrence Democrat, is the Social Services Budget Committee's longest serving member. In 15 years, she has served with four chairs, all Republicans: Reps. Melvin Neufeld of Ingalls, Brenda Landwehr of Wichita, Bob Bethell of Alden, and most recently David Crum of Augusta. Weber was the first of those to be appointed chair without having previously served on the committee. Nevertheless, "he did an outstanding job. He really studied up on all the issues," Ballard said. "Once he learns the history of an issue, he has a sense of caring about what really happens to people." She said Weber was "fair, approachable, and willing to ask for input," particularly from her and Crum, the only two returning members of the committee. Early exposure to the social service system Though relatively young and new to the Legislature, Weber has had outside experiences pertinent to the committee's responsibilities. "My parents started doing foster care when I was real little, so it was part of my growing up. It was pretty common for us to have children come stay with us," he said in an extended interview joined by his wife and young daughter. His parents ended up adopting four of the foster children, joining him and three other siblings. First forays into politics Weber's interest in politics was evident while he was still in college. At age 20, while studying history at Newman University in Wichita, he interned for then-4th Dist. Congressman Todd Tiahrt from 2003 to 2004. He was also student body president at Newman and later earned a masters degree in history at Fort Hays State. At age 21, he managed the 2004 election campaign for then-state Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler. He did that again in 2008. At age 27, he was deputy campaign manager for Huelskamp's first congressional campaign. That was in 2010. In 2006 and 2008, he co-chaired the election campaigns for then-state Rep. Pat George, R-Dodge City. George currently is the state's commerce secretary. Weber was first elected to public office at age 25, serving as a Dodge City commissioner for three years starting in 2008, including being selected vice mayor, before coming to the Statehouse. When George resigned his House seat in 2011 to take his current job, Weber was chosen to replace him by local precinct committee members. He was then elected to the seat in 2012, winning 69 percent of the vote over challenger Larry Blake. Blake, an 85-year-old Democrat, said Weber has shown more interest in representing the priorities of Gov. Sam Brownback than those of Dodge City residents. In an email, Blake wrote: “Brian Weber is a dedicated Republican conservative politician who supported every legislative initiative of Gov. Brownback during his first legislative session in 2012 ... I do not think that anyone who buys into the idea that the affluent (or 'job creators') should be relieved of their obligation to support state programs — at the expense of the poor and middle class — serves the people of Dodge City well.” 'Not a rubberstamp' But Ballard, the Lawrence Democrat, said she didn't view Weber as a rubberstamp for the governor. She pointed to his work to fully restore $634,000 in safety net clinic funding that was cut by the governor in his proposed budget. She said her peers on the Social Services Budget Committee were impressed by that. Generally, House budget subcommittee chairs were intent on finding spending cuts this year. The safety net spending is currently being negotiated in budget conference committee — the House recommendation is $634,000; the Senate's is $400,000. Total spending on Kansas' 39 safety net clinics is $7.8 million annually. Ballard said on several occasions Weber sided with Democrats on the committee. "He doesn't seem to worry about what's going to happen to him politically when he voted with Democrats on some issues. I think he felt if that was the right thing to do, that was the side he was going to be on. I think he's willing to go out on a limb a little bit, if that's what he believed in." Weber also took exception to Blake's characterization, saying he disagreed with the Brownback administration on several issues. "Last year, I publicly opposed (Brownback's) initial education funding reform and his second. I pointed out rural area schools like Dodge have added costs associated with rural (areas) but we're also 6A and the second largest recipient of at-risk funding. So we have the added obstacles and costs of an urban school. We can't be put in a box," he said. Weber said he also opposed a component of Brownback's reading initiative, which called for holding back third graders who don't demonstrate reading proficiency. "We can't wait for a child to fail to help them," Weber said. "I recognize this also means we must have the resources, which means we need the growth in our state to fund education." He also said he's opposed to the governor's proposal to eliminate income tax deductions for mortgage interest and for charitable contributions, as well as the governor's elimination of arts funding. Tea Party Weber and his wife Alicia, who is frequently at the Statehouse, met at a 2009 Huelskamp fundraiser. By then, Alicia — who said she developed an interest in politics leading up to the 2008 presidential election — had already organized the first Tea Party rallies in western Kansas (in Lakin and Garden City). "Back then it wasn't what it is now," she said of the Tea Party. "Back then the main issue was reckless government spending and government intrusion onto citizen rights. Pretty much everything fell under those two umbrellas. But now, I hesitate to claim being part of it. There's just been so many splintering factions now, and some of them are very, very radical." "It's moved from an idea to different organizations," her husband said. "Sometimes those organizations don't even balance. One may advocate for more parental involvement and very strict social causes, whereas another may identify as a Tea Party organization and promote legalization of recreational marijuana." He said that splintering described the Tea Party nationally. In western Kansas, interest in the movement apparently has died down. There's no longer an active Tea Party group in Dodge City, Alicia said. "The Tea Party, in terms of local groups, kind of served their purpose I think," she said. And some Tea Party groups that are still active, particularly near Kansas City, don't support Weber today, he said. "I know plenty of people who identify as a Tea Party person who don't support me. In the state at least, maybe not so much (among) my constituency, but in the state," he said, citing harsh emails from Johnson County Tea Partiers. "They disagree with my stand on immigration — that was a big one," he said. "I would favor the business coalition plan that's been proposed as kind of a workforce development plan — finding a pathway to citizenship for individuals who have been here and have not committed violent offenses or crime." 'Take the high road' When he receives harsh emails, Weber said he remembers advice from his mentor in the legislature — the late Rep. Bob Bethell, a pastor of the Alden Baptist Church. On the last day of the 2012 legislative session, Bethell died in a single-car accident on his way home. "He was my seat mate and a close friend," Weber said. "Sometimes I would get a very harsh email and I would sit down and draft a very pointed response. In my response, I would cite policy or statistics and I would ask Rep. Bethell if he would check me, to make sure my statistics and points were accurate." "I would explain to him how upset I was at the way I was being addressed in an email, and he would always say 'That's ok, Brian...I would encourage you to take the high road.' I learned how to better approach criticism and try to de-escalate something into a conversation, instead of an argument," Weber said.