Soon after the 2018 session opened, passionate talk of making Kansas government more transparent echoed through the state Capitol.
Lawmakers issued press releases, attended town halls and held news conferences vowing to bring more openness to one of the darkest states in the country. They introduced measures calling for everything from banning the practice of anonymous bills to releasing information after a child dies of abuse or neglect.
“I think the state works better when we are more transparent,” Gov. Jeff Colyer told The Star more than a week ago as he himself campaigned for openness. “Then we can have accountability and effectiveness.”
Many say positive change already has taken place, and credit leadership for making key policy changes that they say provide more sunlight in Topeka. And they are confident some legislation will pass.
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Yet a Thursday deadline looms that could determine how far the transformation goes. That is the date that most bills must pass in the chamber where they originated if they are to progress any further this session.
“We’re really coming up to the end,” Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat who has sponsored one of the transparency measures, told The Star on Monday. “And at some point, the attention is going to shift to school finance. Then I think these things are going to fall to the wayside.”
Of the 18 transparency measures introduced this session, five have had committee hearings as of Tuesday afternoon. One of those five was debated on the Senate floor Tuesday.
“The evidence speaks for itself,” said Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican. “We need to allow bills to follow the process. We need to give bills that people want to hear, a hearing.”
A cry for transparency in Topeka came after The Star revealed in a mid-November series 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.
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. And when it comes to child welfare, The Star found that the state agency often cloaks its involvement with child tragedies, even shredding notes after meetings where children’s deaths are discussed.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman dismisses any claims of “all talk, little action” so far this session. The Olathe Republican pointed to his order last month requiring that committee chairs immediately do away with anonymous bills. He said staff at the Capitol have worked hard to include sponsors’ names online, and citizens have called to thank him for that.
Despite that order, however, not all committee bills show the names online of the person or organization requesting them — including a proposal titled the Kansas Transparency Act. And in the Senate that idea has not taken hold. Several Senate transparency bills do not reveal the sponsor online.
Yet Ryckman touted live streaming at the Capitol, a YouTube stream of the House floor and said the public can see who introduced bills in the House.
“I want to pause and hopefully recognize the work that we have done and that I think has really improved transparency in this building,” Ryckman said. “Obviously, we can get better at transparency, but the work that we’ve taken so far, I’m very pleased with.”
Here are some of the proposals that legislators will be watching this week:
Last month, Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, sponsored House Bill 2548, which would require measures introduced by a committee to 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.
After Clayton announced her intention to introduce the bill, Ryckman issued his order to committee chairs.
The concern, though, is that a policy change could be reversed by future leadership. That’s why Clayton and other lawmakers insist the elimination of anonymous bills should be done with a law and not just a policy change.
Yet Clayton’s bill, co-sponsored by 40 lawmakers, is among the 13 transparency proposals that have not received a hearing.
“It doesn’t mean it’s doomed, but it’s less likely. ... I still have hope,” she said.
A bill similar to Clayton’s is sitting in a Senate committee also awaiting a hearing. Its sponsor, Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, knows her proposal — whose co-sponsors include Senate President Susan Wagle — still has a long road ahead.
Proposals to make lawmakers’ votes more public also are sitting in House and Senate committees with no hearings yet scheduled.
One, sponsored by Pilcher-Cook and three other senators, would require that the votes of each committee member be recorded on all motions and other actions.
“There are a lot of people in committees who don’t want to reveal where they stand on an issue,” said Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican. “When I first came in the Legislature, I was astounded how many legislators will try to kill a bill in committee and then vote for it on the floor. It’s like, OK, who are you trying to deceive?”
Police body cameras
One bill that was originally intended to make it easier for the public and families to see police body cam footage passed the House Judiciary Committee this week — but only after lawmakers made changes to the bill.
When introduced, the proposed legislation — which was opposed by law enforcement — would have required police to publicly release the footage within 30 days of a request and disclose it within five days to the subject of the video or his or her attorney, heirs or parents.
Now, the bill says that it must be released to family or heirs within 20 days, and there are no requirements on publicly releasing the footage. That part of the bill’s language will likely go to the judicial council for review over the summer.
“I’m good with it,” Rep. John Alcala, a Topeka Democrat who introduced the bill. “I think it’s better to get something out of it than take a chance and not get anything out of it… Hopefully we’ll see it on the floor in the next couple of days.”
A similar Senate bill, backed by Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, had a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee but no action has been taken.
Meanwhile, Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said his bill on police racial profiling, which would have required departments to start tracking race demographics at traffic stops, will not get a hearing this session.
The Star reported in December on Kansas’ flawed system of tracking racial profiling complaints — from incomplete data collection to redacted records to agencies simply not participating.
Grading the results
Several lawmakers said they hope to see at least a few transparency measures become law. The worry is that time will run out for some bills because the process is moving too slow.
Probst, whose proposal to ban the gut-and-go maneuver is still sitting in a committee, said the Legislature so far barely gets a passing grade in his mind.
“I think D is a fair grade,” he said. “I was encouraged that a number of transparency bills have been blessed and moved to exempt committees, but we haven’t had many hearings. ... Otherwise, I’d say F.”
Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, is much more optimistic. He hands out a B at this point.
“I think they’re truly working through the transparency issues,” Hawkins said. “Do we have to have bills and laws to make it transparent? I don’t think so. But I’m sure we’re going to get a chance at some of them.”
Clayton, who has pushed for transparency the past several years, said if three bills regarding openness pass this session, she’ll call it a success.
But right now? She’d give the Legislature a “nice D-plus.”
“We’ve done the bare minimum,” Clayton said. “A D-plus is technically a passing grade. It’s not something you would show anyone on your transcript, but you know, it gets you finished with that class.”