Kansas lawmakers from across the political spectrum said they will push to fix the state’s culture of secrecy in the wake of a Kansas City Star series that highlights stunning levels of opacity in state and local government.
They cautioned, however, that the next governor will have to champion the issue for the Sunflower State to have truly transparent government.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is set to take the reins of power if Gov. Sam Brownback is confirmed as an ambassador, pledged Tuesday to address the problem.
“Transparency is absolutely critical to increase Kansans’ confidence in government. I look forward to taking steps to increase transparency and improve public trust when I become governor,” Colyer said in a statement.
Colyer did not weigh in on specific questions raised in The Star’s series or offer policy moves he’d like to pursue to bring more sunshine to state government — as many of his competitors for the 2018 Republican nomination did.
“We’re not going to destroy or shred documents,” said former state Sen. Jim Barnett, a Topeka Republican running for governor, referencing allegations from a former Kansas Department for Children and Families official that she was instructed to shred notes while working for the agency that handles child welfare.
The Star’s series on secrecy highlighted multiple examples of state and local agencies hiding information from the public, including KanCare recipients who were asked to sign blank plans of care and a grieving father who was asked to sign a document that would have prevented him from talking about the death of his son and DCF’s involvement in the case.
Lawmakers were quick to call for reform this week. Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said the choice of a new governor is important because the next executive will choose the cabinet secretaries that will determine how open state agencies are.
“This is about the expectations of appointees,” Rooker said.
“I think there is some legislative work to be done and I will be supportive, but this is really a change of culture that the voters control because it speaks to who we elect as governor because the governor controls appointments,” she said.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said he plans to revive a bill that would allow for more information to be public when a child dies or suffers serious injury unless DCF can show that the disclosure of that information would hurt the child or their siblings.
In addition, Ward, who is also a candidate for governor, said he will push for the state to fill an inspector general position for the state’s $3 billion privatized Medicaid program, KanCare, that has been vacant for more than three years.
“There’s been some underlying complaints about transparency for the past few years, but this may have been the tipping point,” Ward said.
“What I will want to do is make sure that I appoint people to cabinet positions that understand that and get that,” he said. “So that we’re not going to be appointing or hiring people who think they work for anybody else but the people of Kansas.”
Rooker saw the overall lack of transparency in state government as related to the state’s budget woes in recent years, noting that a former spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Transportation allegedly lost a job for answering a question about the state’s budget problems truthfully.
“The cover-up aspect of stuff, whether you’re talking about KDOT or DCF, all of the attempts to suppress information was from a desire to suppress news about how the budget cuts have affected agencies,” she said.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, remarked on how state agencies will point to a lack of resources as a reason why they can’t fulfill open records requests in a timely manner.
“That’s what small government looks like: Secretive, sneaky government… Maybe we need to start funding these entities so they can be open,” she said.
Rep. Joy Koesten, a Leawood Republican serving her first term in the House, said she found during her committee work that “many of the agency heads were fairly reluctant to give us a full picture of what was going on, often times painting a pretty rosy picture.”
“And I have to believe that that is because they feared some kind of repercussion,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s the case, but I never quite felt that we were getting the full picture.”
She said she would be supportive of any bills that come forward that highlight the need for openness.
Ellsworth Democrat Josh Svaty, who served as the state’s secretary of agriculture under Gov. Mark Parkinson, said agency heads need to do more to inform the public about their decisions, including traveling to forums outside of Topeka to hear from constituents.
“You set the tone as governor in terms of how much accountability you think is worthwhile and your agency heads pick up on it,” said Svaty, who is running for governor.
The Star also raised questions about how the Legislature often relies on tactics that obscure the authors of bills and hinder the public’s ability to track legislation, something that was seized on by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
“There is a culture of corruption and secretiveness in Topeka that has been in place for decades. Ending that culture of corruption and secretiveness has been a central message of my campaign. It is outrageous that committee votes by legislators are not recorded. The people of Kansas need to know how their legislators are voting. It’s Civics 101,” Kobach, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, said in a statement.
“On top of that, we have multiple reports of sexual harassment in the statehouse that have been covered up,” Kobach said, noting The Star’s recent coverage of the culture of harassment in the Capitol. “As governor I will push for a legislative requirement that all votes are recorded making Kansas government more transparent and accountable.”
Kobach has faced his own questions about transparency as secretary of state, recently refusing to disclose emails related to his work on a presidential commission. Kobach contends that he is on the commission as a private citizen rather than a state official.
He also unsuccessfully fought the ACLU in court to keep documents sealed from a meeting with President Donald Trump.
Several lawmakers agree on the need to change common legislative procedures that undermine accountability.
Rep. Brett Parker, an Overland Park Democrat, said he’s all for eliminating the rule that allows lawmakers to file bills anonymously, which is incredibly common in Kansas but rare in other states.
“One of the things that was interesting reading the article is that a lot of things that are just accepted as norms in Kansas are not normal in other places,” he said.
Clayton, who has championed transparency causes for several years, said that since the Legislature will have live-streaming audio for every committee, lawmakers should pursue video-streaming and push to keep all committee meetings archived on the Legislature’s website.
That would take care of the questions about how lawmakers voted in committee, Clayton said.
“Everybody’s going to see your committee votes because everybody’s going to see you raising your hand,” she said.
But even if simple reforms like this are made, fixing the culture in Topeka will be a major challenge, she said.
“Cultural change is, by far, one of the hardest things to do,” Clayton said. “One of the first pieces of advice I was given as a young legislator is never, ever put your name on a bill.”
Rep. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, said she and some of her colleagues are working on reforms she thinks could become legislation in the next session.
“Many of us are new and we had heard of these issues, but we were probably, I would say, even more surprised when we got to Topeka at the lack of transparency and how business was conducted,” she said.
Former state Rep. Mark Hutton, a Wichita Republican mounting a campaign for governor, said the biggest way to improve transparency in Topeka would be to make preparation of the state’s budget a “much more open process.”
Under the current system, the governor submits a budget to the Legislature at the start of each legislative session in January but the process before that point is largely private. Hutton said the governor should have open forums on the budgetary issues before the Legislature even convenes.
Hutton also said he’s open to considering changes to the state’s open records and open meetings act to improve disclosure. He suggested that a bipartisan task force with members of the media could review the issue.
“We just can’t hide behind laws. It just is a bad, bad policy,” Hutton said.
Kansas is one of four states that do not require public notice of all regular public meetings, according to a Star analysis of the 50 states’ open meetings laws. The Kansas Open Meetings Act only requires notice be given to individuals who have requested it. And Kansas and Arkansas are the only two states that do not require minutes to be kept of a public meeting.
The Legislature updated the Kansas Open Records Act in 2016 to eliminate a loophole that allowed government officials to avoid disclosure by using private email. Sen. Molly Baumgardner, the Louisburg Republican who championed that effort, said she’s open to a comprehensive review of both the open records and open meetings acts in the 2018 session.
“Is that something we’re going to keep looking at? Absolutely. Absolutely,” Baumgardner said.
“If we’re going to get something passed, I want it to be substantive,” she said. “I am not one of those people who wants to introduce a bill just for the sake of saying I got something introduced. I want it to be impactful.”
The Star’s Kelsey Ryan contributed to this report.