Government & Politics

Kansas House speaker orders committee chairs to start revealing who is behind legislation

KRT

Responding to increased calls for greater transparency in Topeka, the Kansas House speaker has ordered all committee chairs to stop allowing bills that do not identify the sponsors.

If a bill is introduced on behalf of someone else — such as a lobbyist — that will also be made clear, Rep. Ron Ryckman said Monday. He said he is also working with staff to post the names of bill sponsors on the Legislature’s website.

The moves, which take effect immediately and don’t require legislative action, end the century-old practice of anonymous bills in the House. At least for this session.

“For me, it’s how do we improve, how do we become more transparent, what can we do administratively?” said Ryckman, an Olathe Republican. “This is something that we can do.”

The speaker’s decision comes four days after a town hall highlighted secrecy in Kansas government in the wake of The Star’s mid-November series on the topic. At the packed forum, which The Star sponsored, many of the 140 people in attendance said they were frustrated when they learned that more than 90 percent of the bills that become law in Kansas do not have a named sponsor. That keeps the public from knowing who is behind a proposal and why.

The Star’s series found that Kansas has one of the darkest state governments in the nation. The report revealed the common use of a scheme called “gut-and-go,” in which lawmakers strip the language in a bill that usually has already passed one chamber and replace it with a totally unrelated measure, then quickly advance it with little or no debate.

Regarding Ryckman’s announcement, Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she was open to adopting a similar policy in her chamber.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, said Ryckman’s action is a good first step, but she questions why it was not done earlier. And, she said, more is needed.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, talked about a bill that could improve transparency in the Kansas Legislature during The Star's town hall on Thursday, Jan. 18, in Olathe.

She plans to file legislation this week 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.

Clayton said her bill — which is expected to have several co-sponsors — would be a statutory change.

“This is important enough where it needs to be binding, it needs to be law,” Clayton said Monday. “Not just policy that is enacted at the pleasure of whomever the speaker may be at the time.”

That’s one reason House Minority Leader Jim Ward said he and other Democrats support Clayton’s bill. Ward, a strong transparency advocate, proposed a rule change in the 2017 session that would have eliminated the anonymous practice. But it was rejected.

Though he agrees with Ryckman’s action and says it “opens up the process a little,” Ward said the policy change is only guaranteed through this session.

“We need to get it in statute,” said Ward, of Wichita, who is running for governor. “I want it to be as hard to reverse what we are trying to do as possible.”

He and other Democratic leaders plan a news conference on Tuesday to announce more measures they say will improve openness in Topeka.

News of Ryckman’s decision received high praise from those who for years have advocated for more open government.

Former Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican who had become known in Topeka for his push for transparency, applauded Monday’s news.

“That’s outstanding,” Rubin said. “I am gratified that House leadership has listened to legislators, the public and all interested parties to make the legislative process more transparent.”

At last week’s town hall meeting, Rubin said it was time for legislative leaders to step up.

“I’ll name one name,” he said when asked what special interests had hampered transparency in the Legislature. “It’s a one-word name: Leadership. It is in the interest of leadership to enhance their power to control legislation as much as they can… and a lot of these things that we see as offensive to legislative accountability are tools of leadership.”

Since the session opened, transparency has become a major focus for lawmakers in both chambers. Last week, Wagle said she would introduce a bill requiring people attempting to influence an executive branch official on contracts to register as a lobbyist.

Monday’s “first step” toward openness in House committees will allow Kansans to further know what their legislators are doing, Ward said.

“Everything has its time,” Ward said. “And this is the time for transparency.”

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

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw

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