Lawmakers in Kansas have already started an effort to counter secrecy in state government, though the legislators at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka wavered over whether enough reforms will be made this session.
Two of the Republican leaders pledged their commitment to bringing more transparency to Kansas amid concerns about a culture of secrecy in the state.
“We will be amping up and accelerating our adoption of transparency measures,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican.
The Kansas City Star, in partnership with the Kansas Press Association, hosted its second town hall Thursday night following last year’s investigative series, “Why so secret, Kansas?” The project found that Kansas has one of the most secretive state governments in the nation.
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Thursday’s forum, attended by roughly 100 people, featured a panel of two Republican legislative leaders, a pair of Democratic lawmakers running for governor, a House newcomer and former Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, has proposed legislation requiring anyone who attempts to influence an executive branch official on contracts to register as a lobbyist.
“Seeking transparency is something that we need to constantly do,” Wagle said.
But House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat running for governor, was more skeptical.
“I’m tired of hearing the process has to work,” Ward said. “We need action now. We can pass bills this year.”
Gov. Jeff Colyer and prominent lawmakers from both parties have pushed for added transparency since the legislative session started last month.
Earlier this year, legislative Democrats held a press conference to announce a handful of measures they’d like to see. And House Speaker Ron Ryckman has ordered all committee chairs to stop allowing bills that do not identify the sponsors, an issue that was covered in The Star’s investigative series.
Other high-profile topics that were detailed in the series included “gut-and-go,” a common practice in which lawmakers gut a bill and insert an unrelated measure, and votes not being recorded in legislative committees.
Both Wagle and Hineman defended the measure, and Democrats admitted it does have some use.
“If we remove it, we have to adjust the system so it still is able to function,” Hineman said. “And frankly I’m not sure how that happens. But what we can do is limit the use of gut-and-go and shine more light on the process when it does happen.”
Wagle followed later by saying, “If you want votes on everything, we’re going to need a much longer session. Especially if you want the votes in committee.”
Wagle and Ward soon sparred back and forth.
“I will happily give up the tool of gut-and-go...if you let the process work,” Ward said.
Later in the forum, the “gut-and-go” issue came back up. Wagle again defended the tactic, which many see as deceptive.
“I don’t try to squelch things…We’re very open,” she said. “The good bills bubble to the top. We’re not coordinating to kill bills, we’re not coordinating to be secret. We’re trying to make the best ideas become public and become law. My leadership team and I don’t suppress initiatives and we don’t suppress legislation.”
Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat, took issue with that.
“I have some real questions about if what I just heard is actually true,” he said at the end of the town hall. “There are a number of people that will talk about how bills cannot get out of committee. There are committee chairs that have their own bills that they’re going to push through.”
Even this week, Probst said, lawmakers were told to “respect the committee process.” But at the same time, he said, some committee chairs aren’t allowing hearings on bills, keeping them from advancing.
“Some of these good ideas don’t bubble to the surface because they have a block put on them,” Probst said. “This is happening. ... We have in this state one very dominant party. The minority party made strides last year but the previous year we had a dominant majority party.”
Thursday’s town hall also covered issues with secrecy in deaths within the child welfare system and police body camera footage.
Colyer, who took office as governor last week, has repeatedly promised he will have a transparent administration.
The Kansas Republican signed a series of executive orders geared toward transparency Thursday morning.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat running for governor who participated in the forum, said she was concerned about secrecy in the executive branch.
“I think we’ve got some good solutions to some of the easy pickings here on transparency,” Kelly said. “But it’s much more difficult for us to figure out what is actually happening in our executive branch and what they’re doing that may or may not be in the best interest of Kansans.”