TOPEKA — It seems that we only hear about our state legislators when they do something wrong or make a controversial statement. From the headlines, it would appear lawmakers spend all day arguing.
The reality, of course, is tamer. Lawmakers debate controversial issues, sure, but more often they hear about things like the naming of highways and issuing commercial driver's licenses. It's an often tedious, non-glamorous job.
That was the case on Monday for Republican Tom Sloan, a 10-term representative whose district covers northwest and far-west Lawrence, north and west rural Douglas County and Lecompton.
9 a.m. — Sloan starts his day about 5 a.m. on his sheep farm west of Lawrence. At 9, Sloan is chairing the Vision 2020 committee. The committee doesn't propose legislation as much as it looks at ideas that might improve Kansans' quality of life.
The committee may be a "bone yard of political opponents for whoever is making a committee assignment," as a fellow legislator once called it, but not for Sloan. Strategic planning is Sloan's forte. He spends less time on the issues making headlines (guns, abortions, same-sex marriage) than the ones that make the nation go (water, energy, communications). Chairing the committee, he tries to get his fellow legislators to care about issues he cares deeply about.
The topic on this day is broadband, namely how to get high-speed Internet across the state.
"How much of that broadband is being taken up by Twitter and Facebook and all that nonsense?" Carolyn Bridges, a Wichita Democrat serving her first term, asks one of the broadband executives there to testify.
He says Facebook and Netflix make up about 50 percent of the traffic on his company's public network. "The vast majority of it is video," he says. "There's a lot of junk out there, but there's also a lot of commerce."
Sloan brings up the possibility of allowing veterans to be seen, virtually, by their Veterans Affairs health care providers at any hospital in Kansas. That would save them from having to drive to the VA medical centers in Leavenworth, Topeka and Wichita. Sloan also notes that he was recently at a livestock auction in North Dakota that his wife was able to watch online from Lawrence.
After hearing about telemedicine and streaming livestock sales, Bridges says, "I never thought about that stuff." Slowly but surely, Sloan is chipping away at his goal.
10:30 a.m. — In between meetings, Sloan catches up on mail, electronic and traditional. The Internet has made lawmakers much more accessible, Sloan says, but something has been lost in the process. Constituents used to send handwritten letters. Now they often just put their name into form emails created by special interest groups. As technology evolves, intimacy is lost.
11 a.m. — It's off to the House floor to debate the bills of the day. On the floor, everyone seems to advertise loyalties — not Republican or Democrat, but Jayhawk, Wildcat or Shocker.
As the legislators quiet down, it's time for prayer but, first, a joke.
"What do you get when you cross a chili pepper, a shovel and a Chihuahua?" asks pastor Rex Petty, father of state Rep. Reid Petty, R-Liberal. "A hot diggity dog."
Noon — On Mondays, the separate caucuses inside the Republican Party meet for lunch. Sloan jokes that his group — the moderates, named the Information Knowledge and Exchange, or IKE (get it?) — "can fit into a telephone booth" (there are 18 of them). The rest of the Republicans — the conservative caucus, known as Kansas Legislative Education and Research, or KLEAR — gathers a floor below.
The moderates eat tacos and sopapillas while hearing from lobbyists for Autism Speaks, which opposes a bill that would cut autism services for state employees.
Afterward, the lawmakers discuss their legislative agenda. Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, talks about the "disastrous" Common Core bill she says could put the state's federal education funding at risk. She discusses how to amend a bill that could limit sex education in schools, which she calls a knee-jerk reaction to "poor judgment shown by one teacher." Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills, says she hopes to change an anti-abortion law signed last year that asserts that abortion can cause breast cancer (Bollier says that is wrong).
The moderates' intention, it seems, is to figure out how to make highly conservative bills a little less so, not always the easiest thing to do as such a small minority of their party.
Why doesn't Sloan just change parties?
"I've looked at every option," he says, "but I think I have opportunity to make a difference (as a Republican)." That way, he can at least chair committees in a chamber (92 Republicans vs. 33 Democrats) that doesn't appear to be turning blue anytime soon.
1:30 p.m. — Reviewing a bill about hauling farm machinery in the House Transportation Committee, Sloan questions details such as a 100-mile radius provision for haulers and whether a certain section should read "and" or "or."
Committee members really spring to life after Tara Mays, initiative liaison for the Kansas Turnpike Authority, tells them about new federal rules that outlaw titles and punctuation in highway memorial signs. So, for example, the Sgt. John Doe Memorial Highway must be called the John Doe Memorial Highway.
3:30 p.m. — The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee meets in the old Supreme Court room, where paintings of the ghosts of Kansas judiciary past stare from the walls. The committee hears about a bill that would allow community colleges to test for commercial driver's licenses. Many of the lawmakers stare down at their smartphones as supporter after supporter of the law approaches the lectern.
4 p.m. — Sloan lets out his first yawn of the day.
4:14 p.m. — Sloan lets out a second yawn.
4:45 p.m. — Tourists walk by the room, thrilled to see their Legislature in action. "I think there's a hearing going on in there!" one of them says.
5 p.m. — In his office, Sloan sits for about an hour to personally answer every email he has received, even the form ones, and catch up on proposed legislation. Afterward, he plans to drive home to Lawrence, spend a few more hours feeding and taking care of his sheep (they're currently lambing) before getting ready to do it all again in the morning.