In a legislative session already consumed with making government more open, Tuesday was the Democrats’ turn to try to stamp out longstanding tactics that have kept Kansans in the dark for decades.
They rolled out a sweeping package of more than a dozen House and Senate proposals designed to bring more transparency to Topeka. The bills, they said in an afternoon news conference, will shed light on one of the most secretive states in the country, a troubling revelation in a recent investigation by The Kansas City Star.
One bill would require all votes taken in the Kansas Legislature to be recorded, and another would prohibit the tactic of stripping a bill and then inserting a totally unrelated measure — a maneuver called “gut-and-go.” Both problems were highlighted by The Star in its mid-November series, Why So Secret, Kansas?
“If we are serious about transparency in this building, we need to end secret votes,” said Rep. Brett Parker, an Overland Park Democrat who is sponsoring that legislation. “With recorded votes in committee and on the floor, concerned constituents will know which legislators to contact with their concerns.”
One bill addresses a lack of information provided by the Department for Children and Families after a child’s death. Another calls for better data collection in traffic and pedestrian stops to monitor racial profiling. And one would increase penalties for agencies that violate the Kansas Open Records Act and the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
“We have to make this place more transparent for Kansans to follow what we do,” said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and candidate for governor. “Kansans deserve the right to watch what their representatives are doing. And we can make that happen.”
Last week, about 140 people packed a town hall meeting sponsored by The Star, many expressing anger at learning about the “gut-and-go” maneuver and at the discovery that votes in legislative committees are seldom recorded.
The Star found that lawmakers can keep their votes from being disclosed to the public in committee meetings, where much of the legislative work is done. That’s because House rules don’t require committee votes to be logged unless a member requests it. The Senate requires only that the number of votes for and against an action be recorded.
At last week’s town hall, panelist John Rubin, a former Republican legislator from Shawnee, said many Kansans don’t realize that legislators’ votes aren’t typically recorded.
“I find that Kansans almost uniformly — Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals — are shocked to find out that most votes are hidden from them,” he said.
Rubin said that when he was a committee chairman in 2013 and told members that their votes would be recorded, “I had a revolt on my hands.” Both Republicans and Democrats went to the House speaker and complained, he said, and some even asked to be removed from the committee. Rubin said he backed down but still had all of his own votes recorded.
The recording of votes will go a long way toward making the legislative process more open, said Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat and also a panelist at last week’s town hall.
“If constituents are tracking an issue, and you vote a way they really have a problem with, that gives them a chance to get a hold of you and express their opinion,” he said.
“Gut-and-go” was first used in 1990 and has since changed the way lawmakers conduct business. The once-rare scheme has become standard practice in the Sunflower State — a way to resurrect bills left for dead and to circumvent public attention on often controversial measures.
Kansas is among only a handful of states that allow the procedure, which lets the legislative process operate in secret. Indeed, the practice has become so commonplace that legislative committee chairs now keep a few bills handy each session to use as “vehicles” in the event they decide to pull a “gut-and-go” to advance a proposal.
The result? Proposals on such hot-button issues as abortion, gun rights and school funding sometimes become law with little or no debate. Indeed, The Star found that half the abortion laws passed in Kansas in the past 10 years were the result of a “gut-and-go” procedure. So was the 2015 law that overhauled the way the state distributes money to school districts — money that accounts for more than half the state’s general fund budget.
“This practice has been somewhat normalized and justified internally here, but I think on the outside, there’s a recognition this is not the best way to accomplish legislation,” said Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat, sponsor of the bill to ban the deceptive procedure. “When we start calling bills vehicles and parking them so that they can be used later as a gut-and-go bill, I think we have a problem. Transparency is imperative, and it’s a cornerstone of democracy. And we have to maintain that.”
A pair of Republican leaders were less than enthusiastic about some of the key transparency proposals the Democrats presented Tuesday.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said he sees no reason to stop using “gut-and-go.”
“Eliminating them is not possible with our present system,” Hineman said. “Without gut-and-goes, this place could not function to do the work of the people adequately.”
Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican, was critical of the proposal to record all votes, saying that “anybody can be recorded any time they want to.”
“We can put that in; I don’t think it matters to anybody,” Longbine said. “I mean, why does it matter who voted for it as it comes out of committee? If that bill passes, you’re going to have a final action vote where the vote’s recorded, right? So what does it matter?”
The state’s leader, however, said he’s ready to examine the proposals.
“Governor (Sam) Brownback supports efforts to bring increased transparency to state government,” said Brownback spokesman Bob Murray. “He will be happy to review any transparency bills the Legislature sends to his desk.”
The proposals came a day after House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said he had ordered all committee chairs to stop allowing bills to be introduced without identifying the sponsors.
Anonymous bills, which have been used in Kansas for a century, were another problem identified by The Star’s series. More than 90 percent of the laws passed in the last decade stemmed from bills with no named sponsors, The Star found.
Ryckman said Monday that if a bill is introduced on behalf of someone else — such as a lobbyist — that will also be made clear. He added that he is working with staff to get information on bill sponsors posted on the Legislature’s website. Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she was open to adopting a similar policy in her chamber.
And Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, said she is introducing a bill Wednesday that would eliminate the anonymous bill practice.
Her proposal would require that the person requesting the measure not only be named in the committee minutes, but remain attached to the legislation during the entire process. Her measure would also automatically remove the requester’s name in the event a “gut-and-go” tactic is used.
Tuesday’s announcement elicited praise from organizations that advocate for more open government.
“When the broader public became aware of how lacking in transparency Kansas is, they were rightly appalled,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas. “It really seems like there is momentum there to change things.
“Gut-and-go” has always been an issue, Kubic said.
“One of the things we always had to worry about is what if a good bill we support winds up being changed at the last moment?”
With all the proposed changes announced Tuesday and in recent days, Kubic said, he has guarded optimism at this point.
“It’s one thing for the bill to be introduced, for them to say they support it in theory,” Kubic said. “It’s quite another to enact them into policy. … I think all of us should wait to see if it happens before we celebrate too much.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said change is long overdue.
“The 2018 Legislature has an opportunity to do the right thing,” said the Topeka Democrat. “We have the ability to make the government work better and more open for the people of Kansas.”