Transparency has become the hot topic in the halls of the Kansas Statehouse.
With the 2018 legislative session in full swing, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for changes to make Kansas government more open.
Next week, you can join in the conversation.
The Star, in partnership with the Kansas Press Association, is holding a town hall at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, in the Emerald Ballroom of the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka, 1717 SW Topeka Blvd. Several legislative leaders and a former lawmaker who has been a strong advocate for openness in government will make up the panel.
The town hall is the second to be held in response to The Star’s recent series that found that Kansas has one of the darkest state governments in the nation, with secrecy permeating nearly every aspect of service. At a packed Jan. 18 town hall in Olathe, panelists fielded questions on topics including KanCare, the complicated legislative process and the troubled Department for Children and Families.
“Kansas government has never been a pinnacle of transparency,” said M. Olaf Frandsen, publisher of the Salina Journal and president of the Kansas Press Association. “While open meetings and open records laws certainly are on the books, the legislative process has managed to hide behind closed doors for decades.”
The Star’s series exposed countless examples of government secrecy, from records kept under wraps in police shootings to shredding notes within the Department for Children and Families to asking KanCare recipients to sign blank forms for plans of care.
The project also showed that lawmakers’ votes in legislative committees are seldom recorded and more than 90 percent of the laws passed in the last decade stemmed from bills whose authors were anonymous. And it revealed the common use of a tactic called “gut-and-go” in which lawmakers strip the language from a bill that’s already passed one chamber and replace it with a totally unrelated measure, then quickly advance it with little or no debate.
The Topeka forum is the public’s opportunity to have a say. If you would like to attend, please fill out the form here.
Panel members are Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican; House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican; Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat; House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat; Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat; and former Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican.
In the weeks since The Star’s series, the push to fix the state’s culture of secrecy has intensified, with calls coming from open government advocates, readers, state officials and legislators.
Residents across Kansas are talking about transparency, said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas.
“I think people see policies that have come out of state government in recent years and people are saying how did that ever happen in the first place?” Kubic said.
Last week, dozens of Kansas lawmakers from both political parties co-sponsored a measure for a state law wiping out the century-old practice of allowing anonymous bills. Forty legislators — nearly one-third of the Kansas House — signed on as co-sponsors of the proposal, introduced by Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican.
House Bill 2548 would require that measures introduced by a committee include the name of the person, lobbyist or organization requesting them. The name would not only be included in the committee minutes, but also would follow the bill through the legislative process and remain attached to it.
Three days earlier, House Speaker Ron Ryckman ordered all committee chairs to stop allowing the introduction of anonymous bills in his chamber. The action by the Olathe Republican is a policy change that could be reversed under a new House speaker. Clayton’s bill, however, is a statutory change that would require legislative action to undo.
Also last week, House and Senate Democrats rolled out a sweeping package of more than a dozen proposals designed to bring more transparency to Topeka. Among them is a proposal by Probst to ban the “gut-and-go” scheme.
Another measure would require all votes taken in the Kansas Legislature to be recorded.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who will become the state’s leader on Wednesday as Gov. Sam Brownback begins his new position as an ambassador at-large for international religious freedom in the Trump administration, also has pledged to address the problem, saying transparency “is absolutely critical to increase Kansans’ confidence in government.”
He has not, however, offered specifics on how he would do that.
The hope, KPA’s Frandsen said, is that definitive change comes this session and residents feel like they know what’s going on in their state government.
“The work by The Kansas City Star, detailing just how elusive openness actually is in our state Capitol, has caught the attention of state legislators and the public alike so that, perhaps, changes can be instituted that will let the people see who is conducting the people’s business, and what kind of business they are conducting,” he said. “That is precisely why the KPA is proud to partner with The Star to host a government and transparency town hall meeting. Our job as journalists is to provide information. The town hall meeting will help us do just that.”