TOPEKA – A proposal to expand the Kansas Open Records Act so that it would cover private emails by state officials about government business was rejected Monday by the state House.
The House voted 86-30 against a proposal from Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat. The measure was inspired by a disclosure that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget director used a private email account to give two well-connected lobbyists a preview of Brownback’s proposals weeks before they were formally unveiled to lawmakers.
Ward offered his proposal as an amendment to a bill that preserves an existing list of exceptions in the records law, allowing government agencies to deny the public access to documents. The House gave first-round approval to an unchanged bill and expects to take a final vote Tuesday.
If Ward’s proposal were to become law, government agencies could be required to disclose officials’ private emails about public business.
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“It is a transparency issue,” Ward said during the House’s brief debate. “It is fundamental to a democracy that people know how decisions are made.”
All of the votes against the measure came from Republicans. Some criticized Ward for not presenting his proposal to a committee for a thorough vetting.
Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican, worried that many kinds of private emails could be subject to disclosure under the open records law if Ward’s proposal were enacted.
Brownback’s office declined to comment on Ward’s proposal.
The Wichita Eagle first reported last week that Budget Director Shawn Sullivan used a private email account to send a Dec. 23 email previewing the governor’s budget proposals. Among the recipients were lobbyists David Kensinger, formerly Brownback’s chief of staff, and Mark Dugan, who managed the governor’s successful re-election campaign last year. Sullivan outlined the governor’s detailed proposals for lawmakers on Jan. 16.
Sullivan has said he wasn’t trying to skirt the records law but used a private email account because he was working from home around Christmas. Brownback said last week that he can’t guess how much business is done by his administration on private accounts but he primarily uses a private cell phone.
Senate Democrats are working on their own proposal to have the Open Records Act apply to officials’ private emails about state business.