Clay Wirestone: This Kansas rep wanted to run for House speaker on a transparency platform. The GOP shut him down. (Column)

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Rep. Dennis “Boog” Highberger, a Lawrence Democrat, won’t be running for Kansas speaker of the House today. Republican leaders who prize obfuscation over open government made sure of that.

But if he did run, here’s part what he would say:

“Returning members know that I have been working for many years, with little success, to make our House rules more fair and transparent. I try very hard not to make promises I can’t keep, but I will promise you this: If I am elected Speaker, you will get to serve in the most fair and transparent House session in Kansas history.”

That comes from a letter Highberger sent to Democrats in the House last month, preparing for his run. As a member of the minority party, he knew he wouldn’t win. But Highberger thought that after years of obfuscation from those in power, the time had come to send a message. No more stacked hearings. No more cobbling together of bills in the dead of night. No more strong-arming members to vote against their wishes.

Republican leaders didn’t like the sound of that at all.

Speaker-in-waiting Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, promptly threatened Democrats’ committee posts. He claimed the party was reneging on a 50-year-old “gentleman’s agreement.” If Highberger simply made a speech, in other words, the GOP would rain down retribution.

Highberger, an eight-year Statehouse veteran, had never heard of such agreement.

“There used to be gentlemen here?” he wondered.

When I reached the representative by phone this month, he didn’t sound distraught about losing the chance to run. But he noted that simply wanting to talk about fairness and transparency generated a disproportionate reaction. One that shows we have a real problem in Topeka.

“The response from the other side made my point better than I could have said,” Highberger said.

He added: “The focus on retribution is something that makes me pretty sad.”

News organizations across the state have covered the situation at the Statehouse for years. The Kansas City Star ran a comprehensive series more than five years ago with the headline “‘One of the most secretive, dark states’: What is Kansas trying to hide?” Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith wrote an analysis last year: “How the Kansas Legislature avoids public scrutiny by hiding in darkness.” Attorney Max Kautsch followed up with multiple columns. The New York Times even got into the action with a scathing report on how the sports betting bill passed.

Highberger’s speech-in-the-rough laid out what a reformist agenda could look like:

“If elected Speaker I will:

  • Direct each committee to elect their own chair and vice-chair.
  • Do my best to make sure that every member gets at least one bill heard and voted on each session; and
  • Manage the legislative calendar so that we don’t have to work important bills in the middle of the night.

“If elected Speaker I will NOT:

  • Block a vote on a bill supported by a majority of legislators;
  • Have special interest provisions that benefit campaign contributors inserted in a conference report in the middle of the night;
  • Be intoxicated while on the podium; or
  • Win the Golden Fork Award.”

The Golden Fork Award, incidentally, is a fake prize invented by journalist Martin Hawver. It goes to the legislator who gobbled the most food and glugged the most drink from lobbyists. Yes, this happens all the time.

Read Highberger’s list. Then imagine the kind of situations that would require a member to make such a speech. What do members see, both Republicans and Democrats, behind closed doors at the Statehouse? What kinds of deals are made that we never know about? What kinds of moral and ethical shortcuts are taken? What do even the most dogged journalists never quite manage to uncover?

While the letter that I’m quoting from today was addressed to Democrats, Highberger had extra comments planned for Republicans.

Yes, he would say to those gathered in the chamber, “I know you can’t vote for me because of payback from leadership.” But he wanted GOP legislators to “imagine what this place would be like if you could come and vote your conscience every day.”

No wonder Hawkins didn’t want him to speak.

Highberger will keep fighting the good fight this session. He wants to pass rules changes that would prevent a future speaker from threatening the minority party the way that Hawkins did. He offers guarded optimism about improved bill tracking procedures. Knowing who introduced legislation and where it came from as bills multiply and divide would help lawmakers, open government activists, journalists and the public they all serve.

Making these changes takes buy-in from both parties, though. The leaders of GOP supermajorities don’t want to open proceedings. They don’t want transparency. They want to score political points against Gov. Laura Kelly and reward the special interests who finance them.

“They don’t have any incentive,” Highberger told me. “It would take a pretty serious bipartisan citizen uproar to make any change in that area, I think.”

You heard the man. If change happens, it’s up to us.

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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