Editorial: Time for more transparency at the Statehouse

Lawmakers shouldn’t hide their actions and limit public discussion of bills

The Kansas State Capitol in July 2017. (Emily DeShazer/The Capital-Journal)

According to an in-depth investigation conducted by the Kansas City Star over the past few months, our state has a serious transparency problem. From a murky legislative process that prevents citizens from discovering which bills lawmakers actually support to an ingrained culture of secrecy at the Department for Children and Families to a failure to publicize open meetings, Kansas has repeatedly proved why it deserves the “F” rating it received from The Center for Public Integrity in a 2015 report.

 

In that report, Kansas ranked 43rd in the country for transparency, receiving a failing grade on nine out of 13 measures (as well as a D-minus on two others). However, if the Kansas City Star’s investigation is any indication, one of those D-minuses should have been yet another F: legislative accountability.

In 2016, 104 bills became law in Kansas – 98 of which were introduced by committees with no sponsors. According to The Star, “For the past decade, more than 90 percent of bills passed in Kansas each year have been committee bills, with no sponsors identified.” This is because, unlike many states in the country (including Missouri), Kansas doesn’t require lawmakers to attach their names to legislation. This prevents citizens from finding out who introduced a bill and why. Moreover, committee members don’t have to record their votes – a rule that leaves constituents even less informed about their legislators’ positions.

One of the most anti-transparent processes in the Legislature is what’s known as “gut-and-go” – a practice whereby lawmakers rip everything out of a bill that has passed one chamber and replace it with completely unrelated material. If the altered bill passes, it heads back to the first chamber, where lawmakers are only allowed to vote it up or down with no debate or hearings. While this allows lawmakers to pass legislation more quickly, it’s harmful for citizens on multiple levels.

First, it makes bills difficult to track. Constituents could be following a bill about retirement planning one day only to find out that it has turned into anti-abortion legislation the next. Even seasoned observers of legislative activity say it’s difficult to keep up with these sudden transformations. Mark Desetti is a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, and he explains how confusing the process can be: “I follow it all day, every day. And I still find myself sometimes going, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ That’s problematic, and the citizens of Kansas lose.”

The citizens of Kansas also lose when open debate and public comment on a bill is restricted in the name of expediency, which is exactly what happens when the “gut-and-go” method is used to circumvent the normal legislative process. One of the most important democratic mechanisms we have is the right to petition the government, and Kansans have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to take advantage of it. Just look at the number of citizens who showed up at the Statehouse to advocate for Medicaid expansion or protest concealed carry on campus this year.

Lawmakers and citizens benefit from greater transparency and open dialogue – legislative proposals will always be stronger if the concerns and expertise of stakeholders, advocates and other citizens are taken into consideration. Meanwhile, greater accountability (in the form of recorded votes and bill sponsorship) will ensure that lawmakers think more carefully about what they decide to support or oppose.

It’s time for lawmakers to stop hiding from scrutiny and start sharing more information with the people of Kansas.

Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.

 

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