It didn’t take long for Gov. Jeff Colyer to find ways to make government more transparent in a state that has been seen as one of the most secretive in the country.
During a joint address Wednesday to the Kansas Legislature, the Republican governor announced a series of executive orders aimed at boosting government transparency, including easier access to public records.
“Transparency is key to better accountability, and accountability is the key to real results,” Colyer said. “Let’s make this happen.”
He also outlined his position on abortion, school finance and sexual harassment.
The orders on transparency are among the first significant steps toward his pledge to have a more open administration after the repeated controversies of former Gov Sam Brownback’s tenure.
Colyer plans to make the first 100 pages of open-records requests free. He will require that state government business be conducted on official email accounts, a policy change that comes three years after The Wichita Eagle uncovered that Brownback and other top-level members of his administration regularly used private email accounts to conduct state business.
The orders, to be signed Thursday, also will create performance metrics for Cabinet agencies and a single website that will list all open meetings happening within the executive branch.
Colyer’s transparency push comes after a Kansas City Star series that focused on secrecy within Kansas government. The stories shed light on how information was withheld inside the Department for Children and Families, in the state’s tax credit programs, in the legislative process and other areas of government.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said he thought he could support all the orders.
“The broad topic of transparency has been a relevant topic for several years now, and it amped up recently, thanks to (The Star) primarily,” Hineman said. “(The Star) raised some legitimate issues about transparency, and there’s interest on both the legislative side and the executive side to address those issues to the extent we can. So I’m happy to see what the governor has proposed.”
House Speaker Ron Ryckman has taken steps to effectively end the practice of anonymous bill introductions, and Senate President Susan Wagle and legislative Democrats are proposing that people attempting to influence the executive branch be required to register as lobbyists.
Colyer thanked legislative leaders for their efforts and endorsed Wagle’s proposal, but said, “Now it’s time for the executive branch to do its part.”
Colyer’s speech came the same day that HCA Midwest Health announced it would be moving its headquarters from Missouri to Kansas for an undisclosed economic incentive package.
Colyer, who holds positions at HCA-owned hospitals, said that he was unaware of the deal to lure HCA to Kansas, which was brokered by Brownback, and that he does not stand to benefit from it. He said after the speech that he would be open to considering disclosing the details of incentive packages, as Missouri and many other states do.
“Transparency is the hot topic right now … but it’s more than just talking,” said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat. “It’s putting things into law and following it. That’s where the governor seems to be running into a problem. He says the right things, but here’s an example where (he’s) not so transparent.”
Colyer’s speech came almost a month after Brownback gave a State of the State speech that attracted harsh criticism from Republican leaders.
Brownback frequently hailed his anti-abortion record. On Wednesday, Colyer affirmed that he will continue the administration's anti-abortion posture.
A Kansas Supreme Court ruling that could recognize the right to an abortion in the state Constitution could come at any time. Colyer strongly hinted he would support amending the Constitution to make clear that access to abortion is not a constitutional right.
Early in the speech, to a standing round of applause, Colyer said he expects a professional workplace free from sexual harassment.
The Star revealed last year that legislative interns and other young women in the Kansas Capitol have faced sexual advances and lewd comments from lawmakers of both parties.
Colyer on Monday signed an executive order requiring all executive branch employees to receive sexual harassment training each year. That order does not affect the Legislature.
“My commitment to you is that harassment in any form, at any time, in any place, will not be tolerated in my administration,” Colyer said.
During his State of the State last month, Brownback said he wanted an additional $600 million in school funding over five years. But he said he wouldn’t call for a tax increase.
Brownback’s budget didn’t say how Kansas would pay for $400 million of his proposed $600 million increase in school funding. The policy shift was in response to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling last fall that found education spending inadequate under the state Constitution.
Republican legislative leaders balked at that idea and said Brownback’s budget didn’t balance.
Colyer was less specific on how he’d like to see educators handle the state’s school funding dilemma, though he called it “the elephant in the room.”
Lawmakers had been looking to see whether Colyer would embrace Brownback’s proposal or back off.
For now, legislative leaders are waiting for a study of education spending in Kansas that’s expected to be completed by mid-March.
Colyer called for an end to education lawsuits, which he said in some form have loomed over 10 governors and “fifty years and counting.”
He said he wanted a definitive solution that ends school finance lawsuits “for good,” and he said increased investments in K-12 education must come through a phased-in approach that “doesn’t increase the tax burden on Kansas families.”
He also called for accountability and improved outcomes.
“I will sign school finance legislation that meets these objectives,” Colyer said.
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said that if Colyer “has a constructive suggestion concerning how we can adequately` fund our schools, then I’m all ears.”
The Star’s Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.