Government & Politics

Kansas legislator to propose measure eliminating anonymous bills

It’s not like ‘Schoolhouse Rock’: How bills become law in Kansas

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. Here's how it works.
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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. Here's how it works.

Kansas legislators no longer would be able to introduce bills without revealing who is behind them under a proposal by an Overland Park lawmaker.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton plans to introduce legislation that would require bills introduced by a committee to include the name of the person who requested them. Under her proposal, the name would not only be included in the minutes of the committee, but also would follow the bill through the legislative process and remain attached to it.

“You need to know whose interest is behind legislation,” Clayton, a Republican, told The Star. “The left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing. … If you don’t know who is doing it, then things start to look a little bit confusing and concerning.”

Last year alone, 94 percent of the bills passed by the Legislature had no named sponsor. Legislators can introduce bills through committees to get around having their names revealed.

The issue of anonymous bills was one of many examples The Star highlighted in a recent series revealing that Kansas has one of the darkest state governments in the nation. The series found that more than 90 percent of the laws passed in the last decade stemmed from bills whose authors were anonymous. That means Kansans don’t know who pushed the measures and why, or who stood to gain from the legislation and who stood to lose.

The series also revealed the common use of a tactic called “gut-and-go,” in which lawmakers strip the language in a bill that’s usually already passed one chamber and replace it with a totally unrelated measure, then quickly advance it with little or no debate.

Many citizens who signed up for a town hall sponsored by The Star — which has now been postponed because of the forecast for bad weather — said the issue of anonymous bills is one of their greatest secrecy concerns.

Most states prohibit the practice and require that every bill contain the name of the lawmaker sponsoring it. And while Kansas legislators on both sides of the aisle acknowledge anonymous bills have been part of the legislative process for decades, they say it’s now used way too often.

Currently, Clayton said, if a bill is sponsored by a committee, the name of the person who requested it could get lost in the paperwork as the bill progresses.

“I want to make it so if you look up a bill online, you’ll know who the requester is, and who asked for it,” said Clayton, who plans to introduce the legislation soon.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat running for governor, said he wished Republicans had voted for such a move last year when he proposed eliminating the practice of anonymous bills during a rules debate. He said the House Democratic caucus is also planning a package of transparency bills.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of support on our side of the aisle,” Ward said.

Clayton’s proposal, which would not cost anything to implement, may face a tough battle. The leaders of both the House and Senate support the practice of allowing anonymous bills.

Supporters contend that legislation sponsored by an entire committee carries more weight than measures proposed by a single lawmaker because it indicates wider approval. Many lawmakers also argue that because their bills sometimes get amended or even replaced through the gut-and-go process, they may not want their names associated with the final product.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, told The Star’s editorial board last week that there would be “unintended consequences” if members started putting their names on bills. He was referring to lawmakers’ names ending up on bills that had been transformed through a gut-and-go procedure.

Senate President Susan Wagle has told The Star that the anonymity gives the legislation a better chance of passing.

“If I want a bill passed, I always want it to be a committee bill,” Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said last fall. “I don’t want a name attached to it because there are people here who see a name on the bill and they vote against it if they have a personal vendetta that they want to carry out.”

John Rubin, a former legislator who was one of the House’s most vocal advocates of transparency, said the greatest opposition to eliminating the practice will likely come from legislative leaders.

“My question to leadership is how is it that other states manage to get public policy enacted without these tools?” said Rubin, a Johnson County Republican and retired federal administrative law judge. “I stand by what I said earlier. We are one of the darkest, most secret states in the country on these things.”

Clayton acknowledged that getting the law changed could be a challenge.

“It could be a hard sell,” she said, “but then again, the people need to know.”

In the past two months, Clayton said, she’s heard from many constituents who aren't happy with anonymous bills and other legislative practices in Topeka that lack transparency.

“The Star series has really galvanized some average constituents,” Clayton said. “They are really mad at us — and they should be.”

Judy L. Thomas: 816-234-4334, @judylthomas

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw

Town hall postponed

A town hall scheduled for Thursday evening has been rescheduled for next Thursday, Jan. 18, because of the predicted bad weather. The panel discussion on secrecy in Kansas government is open to the public, but please register by filling out the form here if you haven’t already done so. The town hall will begin at 7 p.m. at Olathe City Hall, 100 E. Santa Fe St. Several lawmakers and an attorney who specializes in Kansas open records laws will make up the panel.