Kansas proposal to tighten lobbying law allows bigger gifts

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, left, R-Wichita, and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, right, D-Topeka, answer questions from reporters following a debate on a lobbying bill, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

? A bipartisan proposal for strengthening Kansas lobbying laws that advanced Tuesday in the Legislature also would allow state officials to accept more expensive freebies from people trying to influence them.

The state Senate gave first-round approval to a bill aimed at shedding more light on attempts by corporations and groups to win major state contracts and influence decisions by executive branch agencies. Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, and Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, are sponsoring it.

The Senate planned to take another, final vote on the measure Wednesday to determine whether the bill passes and goes to the House. Legislative leaders in both parties have said making government more transparent is a priority this year.

The bill would require representatives of groups and companies to register as lobbyists and publicly disclose some spending if they seek to influence actions by state agencies or decisions on administrative matters by the courts. Currently, lobbyists must report spending on attempts to influence legislators and lobbying for and against agencies’ administrative rules.

“I think that we should know who’s working with the administration on spending taxpayer dollars,” Wagle said after the Senate’s debate.

Wagle said her interest was inspired by a 2016 plan to tear down one state office building near the Statehouse and build a new power plant for the Capitol and other state buildings. Former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback had planned to pay for the $20 million project through a lease-purchase agreement with Bank of America. Legislative opposition forced him to drop it.

Hensley cited a plan approved by legislative leaders last month to have Tennessee-based CoreCivic Inc. build a new state prison in Lansing, with the state buying the facility through a 20-year lease. The company hired a former Brownback chief of staff as a consultant last year, and he later registered to lobby for the firm for two months.

The proposal to expand the state’s lobbying laws did not inspire opposition, but some senators balked at provisions increasing the total value of the gifts state officials can accept from each individual to $100 from $40.

State law allows legislators to accept an unlimited amount of free meals and drinks from lobbyists, though they must report what they spend. State officials can accept tickets for sporting or entertainment events totaling less than $100 from an individual each year.

But other goodies — such as coffee mugs, pens, gift baskets and plaques — must have a total value of less than $40 annually.

Some senators questioned the need to raise the cap on gifts, but Wagle said $40 is low enough that the governor has had to return mementos of appreciation.

And Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, said he thinks the $100 limit still would be too low.

“If anyone’s really going to be that influenced by such a low amount of money, they probably shouldn’t be in the Legislature in the first place,” Haley said.