Kansas Democrats unveil government reform bills

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, announces a bill he's sponsoring that would cap the pay of legislators at 90 days during odd years and 60 days during even numbered years during a press conference on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka

? Democrats in the Kansas Legislature unveiled a package of government reform bills Thursday that include proposals to shorten the legislative session and close what they call a “revolving door” that allows lawmakers to become lobbyists as soon as they leave public office.

“Failure to effectively manage the Kansas legislative process has resulted in wasted taxpayer dollars and legislative sessions that run far longer than the 90 days already allocated,” said Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City.

Currently, under the Kansas Constitution, sessions are limited to 90 days during even-numbered years, unless two-thirds of the members of each chamber vote to extend the session.

Holland’s proposal would cap legislators’ pay at 90 days during odd-numbered years and at only 60 days during even-numbered years.

The announcements Thursday came one week after Democratic leaders took harsh criticism from reporters, and even other Democrats, for calling a news conference to announce their “vision” for the 2016 session, which included a long list of general principles and stinging attacks against Gov. Sam Brownback and legislative Republicans, but no specific proposals of their own.

In addition to shortening sessions, the package announced Thursday also calls for imposing a two-year moratorium before any legislator or cabinet member can go to work as a lobbyist; prohibits the use of private email accounts for conducting state business; and creates a database of all state contracts to make them more publicly accessible.

Another bill being pushed by Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, would tighten limits on when governing bodies can hold closed-door executive sessions by requiring them to state publicly the particular subject matters to be discussed and the specific exemption to the Kansas Open Meetings Act that is being used to justify a closed session.

Most of the proposals are responses to specific controversies that have arisen in the Statehouse in recent years, including an incident in late 2014 when officials in Brownback’s administration used their private email accounts to circulate portions of the governor’s proposed budget before he had presented it to the Legislature.

“This became an obvious problem last year, as I think we all know, and was clearly an attempt to skirt the law,” said Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said there has been a growing trend in recent years of legislators leaving office and immediately accepting jobs as lobbyists for organizations that were frequently before the committees on which they served.

The two most recent examples, he said, were former Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, who was recently hired to lead the Kansas Family Policy Council, and former Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, sponsor of numerous gun rights bills, who resigned to become a multistate lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.

“And then there’s the poster boy for this bill, former House Speaker Mike O’Neal,” Hensley said, referring to the Hutchinson Republican who was hired as president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber soon after leaving office in 2013.

“In 2012, using his position as speaker, O’Neal strong-armed the House into passing the Kansas Chamber’s number-one legislative priority, Sam Brownback’s income tax cuts,” Hensley said.

Although some of the bills discussed Thursday have been introduced in earlier sessions, others were still being drafted at the time of the news conference. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Republican leaders who control the House and Senate will allow the bills to be heard in committees.