Kansas lawmakers are slowly making progress to improve transparency
This was the year Kansas legislators promised to be more transparent. And at times, they were.
A bill requiring more accountability surrounding lobbyists became law. Another measure to release information after a child dies of abuse and neglect is headed to the governor. Executive orders have pried open some secretive processes and House leadership has begun to tackle anonymous bills.
But in the waning hours of the 2018 session — while most Kansans slept — lawmakers voted on the year's most controversial issue after using a decades-old maneuver that strips a bill of its contents and replaces it with a totally unrelated measure.
Just before 2 a.m. Friday, less than three hours after the House approved it, the Senate passed a bill that was unrecognizable from its original form in March.
The measure, which has prompted fiery opposition, would allow faith-based adoption agencies to turn away gay and lesbian couples. A House-Senate conference committee stripped the contents of a financial bill, the Kansas Money Transmitter Act, on Thursday and replaced it with the Adoption Protection Act. The adoption bill had been stalled in committee for more than a month.
"I came on the floor today and there's Senate Bill 284," Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, said on Thursday. "I didn’t know what it was because I hadn't seen it before. And it was the Adoption Protection bill with the religious liberties exemption."
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, defended the procedure used to pass the adoption bill.
"That's the process that is used to get things this time of the year through," Ryckman said Friday. "If there was more time and there was more vehicles and there was more time in the day … it's the same process that was used in the education bill … that's what we had to do."
Added House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, who voted against the adoption bill: "During this veto session, the last eight days, there have been multiple instances of a 'gut-and-go' occurring to allow us to do what we need to do … if we didn't have that tool available, we'd be in a bad place."
But it shows that despite some progress, legislators are still using methods that many consider deceptive.
The Star's mid-November series, "Why so secret, Kansas?" found the state has one of the nation's darkest governments. More than 90 percent of the laws passed in the last decade stemmed from bills whose authors were anonymous.
The Star also revealed how the once rarely-used "gut-and-go" tactic had become commonplace.
Legislators responded. By the end of February, 19 measures promoting transparency had been introduced. Four eventually passed both chambers.
"There was some progress," said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, who is running for governor. "It wasn't totally without reward. … It's a better process today than it was six months ago. There's so much more we can do. It just means a commitment to how open and transparent we are going to be."
For Probst, who in February proposed a ban on the "gut-and-go" tactic, this session would have been the perfect time to eliminate some of the age-old practices that contribute to the secretive mindset at the state Capitol. The former columnist for The Hutchinson News had spent years calling for greater transparency in Topeka, especially with "gut-and-go."
"I cannot believe that's the process that the people of Kansas want to see used to pass legislation," Probst said.
His efforts on that practice this session, though, were in vain.
Successes and failures
Gov. Jeff Colyer, who took office Jan. 31 and issued several executive orders aimed at promoting openness, called the efforts this year a success.
One measure passed by the Legislature and sent to the governor would require that body camera footage from police shootings be provided to family within 20 days of a request. Law enforcement agencies that seize property if they believe it's connected to a crime must report what property they take and how they use it.
"I am pleased that we were able to take important steps to make the executive branch more open, transparent and accountable to the people of Kansas," Colyer said in an email to The Star. "I am also proud of the work undertaken by leadership in the House and Senate to pass additional transparency measures."
New policies, he said, would restore public trust in government and ensure that people across the state are better informed.
What he did not say is that much of the legislation proposed this session did not go anywhere. For some, that is a signal that Kansas still has a long way to go.
On Friday, the session's last day, the House passed with no opposition a bill removing the secrecy of who gets economic incentives, including tax credits. Unlike other states, Kansas had not allowed access to that information, The Star reported in November.
The Senate did not take up the measure before adjourning Friday.
Thirteen of the transparency bills died in committee, nine without even getting a hearing. One bill passed the House but died in a Senate committee. One — ironically, called the Kansas Transparency Act — made it to the full House and was scheduled for debate, but then was moved to the bottom of the calendar, where it never resurfaced.
Among the killed bills? Probst's proposal to ban the "gut-and-go" tactic.
Other bills that floundered were those that would have required votes to be recorded in committees and on the House and Senate floors.
Also stuck in committee was a bill proposed by Rep. Stephanie Clayton that would have required that measures include the name of the person or group requesting them. The bill had 40 other co-sponsors.
Clayton, R-Overland Park, tried to offer the measure as an amendment on the House floor last week, but she was rejected.
A Senate bill that was similar to Clayton’s suffered the same fate. The measure, introduced by Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, had strong bipartisan support and 22 sponsors — enough to pass the 40-member Senate. But it languished in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee the entire session without even getting a hearing.
"If you don’t have the president of the Senate and the majority leader on board, it doesn’t matter if you have 38 people in favor of it," Hawk said. "They were not willing to make it a priority. They didn't really want all of the blowback that might come from really taking a deep dive."
Some say legislative leaders are to blame for the inaction.
"I think they treated it as a PR problem, rather than a governing problem," said Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, whose bill to require recording of votes in committees and on the House and Senate floors was among those that never got a hearing. "I tried to be optimistic that everyone is ready to do the right thing every single day. But I can't say I was terribly surprised that they (the bills) didn't move because the people who benefit from a lack of transparency are those in the highest positions of leadership."
"The fact that they fought so hard against some of these things, that tells you everything you need to know," she said. "I don’t mean to pull out the old Maya Angelou quote, but when someone shows you who they are, believe them.
"And they showed us who they are."
Ready for next year
Legislators whose bills died this session said they weren't giving up. Some have already met and plan to join forces to push the measures next year.
"I do think there will be a group of us, provided we all win re-election, who will reassemble and recalibrate next year and come at this transparency issue again," Probst said. "There is a group of us here in the Statehouse that see this as so important, and I don't think we're going to be willing to give up on it."
And that’s what his constituents want, he said.
"Any time I talk about transparency or talk about anything that sheds a little light on how the process works, they really like that," he said. "When I get that feedback from my constituents, I feel like I'm taking the right approach on this."
John Wilson, vice president of advocacy for Kansas Action for Children, said the Legislature has taken important steps toward increasing transparency.
"Yet there is more that can be done," he said. "We need lawmakers, agency leaders, and a governor to embrace a mindset and way of working that invites full public participation in the process because they see the value of diverse viewpoints."
Lawmakers say they can only do so much. And with House members all up for re-election in November, they say, it's time for the public to get engaged.
Former Rep. John Rubin, a Republican from Shawnee, said Kansans should thoroughly question the candidates running for office.
"Ask candidates where they stand on transparency," Rubin said. "And not just in general. Where do they stand on recording votes in committees? Ask specific questions."
Added Hawk: "The voters are the batters up this next time."