Clay Wirestone: Simple reforms could make the Kansas Legislature more transparent; leaders don’t want that (Column)

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Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith published a must-read analysis last week. “How the Kansas Legislature avoids public scrutiny by hiding in darkness” included detail after detail showing how an institution with Republican supermajorities nonetheless takes shortcut after shortcut to conceal its actions.

Others have written about these problems before. The Kansas City Star published a whole series back in 2017. Each time journalists point out how bad things are, we hear a few shocked exclamations. Then everything falls back into familiar patterns, only worse.

That’s why we can no longer talk just about the problems. We have to highlight solutions.

Thankfully, we don’t have to create those solutions from whole cloth. The Kansas Coalition for Open Government, which is sponsored by the Kansas Press Association, Kansas Association of Broadcasters and the Kansas Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, has outlined eight proposals that would increase transparency and improve state government overall.

The most important part of these proposals? They’re nonideological. They have nothing to do with what positions senators or representatives hold, or what bills they decide to pass. They simply allow Kansas residents to see what their government is doing. Smith listed them toward the end of his analysis, but I’d like to tout them a bit more today.

Here’s the list, quoted directly from the analysis:

  • Restrictions on the number of bills that can be bundled.
  • A requirement that all bills must have had a public hearing in order to be considered by the committee of the whole.
  • Limiting “gut and gos” to same-subject bills that have had a public hearing.
  • Requiring the public be notified of a bill’s hearing 48 hours in advance of the hearing.
  • Requiring all hearing testimony be posted online before a bill is considered by the committee of the whole, or within 48 hours of the end of a hearing.
  • Requiring that each legislator have access to bill language before voting on a bill.
  • Providing equal time to each person testifying before a committee, not equal time per side.
  • Requiring the name of the legislator sponsoring a bill.
Kansas Senate leadership huddles around a clock in the Kansas Legislature. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Note that these commonsense suggestions don’t require lawmakers or legislative leaders to change their minds. They simply ask officials to listen to the people they purport to represent. Fully half of the proposals focus on full and even treatment of public hearings. The other half make it easier to track legislation and understand what it does.

So why don’t the folks running the Legislature do these things already?

Because they know Kansans don’t support what they do. They don’t want to answer outraged teachers or parents as they attack public education. They don’t want to answer LGBTQ community members as they target transgender children. They don’t want to answer constituents as they undermine election law, threaten public health and exploit undocumented folks.

Back in April, as legislators embarked on a three-week break, I wrote: “Who asked for this disastrous Statehouse session? Certainly not Kansas voters.” Anyone watching could see that leaders wanted to pass a far-right agenda no matter what, steamrolling more thoughtful legislators and the public alike. They wanted deep-red political wins to wound Gov. Laura Kelly as she runs for reelection.

The session didn’t end as poorly as it could have, but that hardly reassures.

The groundwork has already been laid, I fear, to employ even more brutal versions of these tactics next session. If Republican Derek Schmidt wins his campaign for governor over Kelly, many more ill-advised, unpopular bills could become law. Restricting abortion and LGBTQ rights, eviscerating public schools, eliminating public support for those most in need – the worst tendencies of an ideological echo chamber will be amplified throughout our state.

Leaders don’t want to be honest with you. They don’t want to be honest with their members. They want to do as little explaining or debating or listening as possible.

As Rep. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat, put it during a speech from the House floor last month:

“They don’t trust you enough to allow for the process to be full, which includes the opportunity to amend. And my goodness, when you’re in such control of the process, you shouldn’t fear the opportunity for someone to offer an amendment and to have it fully debated, even if you do not support it. Your voters do not send you up here to simply take orders. Don’t be sheep.”

If lawmakers truly want to pass harmful bills, they have that right. The Kansas GOP certainly has numbers on its side. But no matter your political beliefs, no matter who you vote for on Election Day, you should expect legislators to act with full knowledge, after thorough debate. They should be proud to stand up and take a well-informed position. They should be eager to explain it to voters.

If they want to hide it instead?

If they seek power at all costs, rather than the right thing for their constituents?

If they object to this simple, eight-point list of reforms?

Well, it’s worth asking why.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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