Max Kautsch: With open government on the line, we’re calling Kansas legislators to account (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Max Kautsch is an attorney whose practice focuses on First Amendment rights and open government law.

Following one of the more contentious and veto-heavy legislative sessions in recent memory, our state’s legislators and their constituents have had a few weeks to reflect. Hopefully, we are all thinking about more than just why some bills passed and some didn’t. Closely examining that question has become increasingly frustrating because of the way the Legislature operates. 

Perhaps we should be thinking more about how those legislative outcomes are the result of a deeply flawed legislative process in desperate need of reform.

I began my post as president of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government at the beginning of this month. The coalition, previously known as the “Sunshine Coalition,” is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that, since its inception in 1999, has helped make Kansas government more transparent. 

As the legal hotline attorney for the Kansas Press Association and Kansas Association of Broadcasters, I’ve been on the coalition’s board of directors since 2015. The organization serves as a resource for Kansans with questions about the transparency of their state and local government. 

Most recently, the coalition put together eight basic ideas for legislative reform that were included in an article published on the Kansas Reflector’s website May 8. Those eight proposed reforms involve streamlining and making more transparent the process by which bills become laws. Those suggestions were:

  • Restrict the number of bills that can be bundled.
  • Institute a requirement that all bills must have had a public hearing in order to be considered by the committee of the whole.
  • Limit “gut and gos” to same-subject bills that have had a public hearing.
  • Require the public be notified of a bill’s hearing 48 hours in advance of the hearing.
  • Require 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.
  • Require that each legislator have access to bill language before voting on a bill.
  • Provide equal time to each person testifying before a committee, not equal time per side.
  • Require the name of the legislator sponsoring a bill.

The Reflector tells me that according to its metrics, the May 8 article has been widely read, and it led to a column from the Reflector’s Clay Wirestone on May 17 focusing on the eight reforms. But feedback from the legislators themselves? 

“Crickets,” reports editor in chief Sherman Smith.

Kansas voters cannot allow our elected leaders to avoid this crucial issue. Indeed, to achieve the best government possible for the people of this state and prove that our legislators act in the public interest and not their own, they must, at minimum, show a willingness to entertain the suggestions from the May 8 article to improve the legislative process.

After all, if elected leaders are not sensitive to the concerns of their voters, why should they remain in office?

The coalition will be sending an email this week from to each of the legislators asking: “Do you support any of the eight legislative reforms suggested in the Reflector’s articles published May 8 and May 17? Why or why not?” 

To make sure all the legislators receive the email, the coalition has contacted the Legislature’s information technology department, and I am reasonably certain that the messages will not go to legislators’ spam folders. At the very least, we ought to find out whether they are checking their email when not in session.

You can expect a report about the responses a month or so from now in this space. Until then, give some thought to how the Legislature passes these bills, not just why.

Ask yourself: Would I be better off knowing more about how laws are made? If the answer is yes, encourage your legislator to answer the coalition’s email. And keep their responses in mind when you vote in August and November.

About the writer

Max Kautsch, licensed to practice law in both Kansas and Nebraska, focuses his practice on First Amendment rights and open government law. He helps news media and members of the public assert rights of access to court proceedings, court records, and government agency documents. He serves as the legal hotline attorney for the Kansas Press Association and the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, is president of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government, and is an adjunct professor at the University Kansas School of Law. Kautsch is also hotline counsel to both the Nebraska Press Association and the Nebraska Broadcasters Association.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

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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