Here’s a challenge for Kansas lawmakers during the 2018 session: Open the doors of state government a little wider and let some sun shine in.
This is easier said than done. Transparency doesn’t come naturally to most at the Capitol, as the 2016 Transparency Pledge effort shows. At the outset of the 2016 session, a newly formed open government advocacy group called Open Kansas asked lawmakers to commit to transparency by signing the following nonbinding pledge:
“Because open and transparent government is the very foundation of our democracy, I pledge to increase government accountability by supporting: public and transparent processes, timely and reasonable access to public information and increased public participation. These principles represent a culture that shows respect and accountability to taxpayers as the people’s work is done under the dome.”
Seemed innocuous enough. But in two years, just 37 of the state’s 165 lawmakers — 22 percent — signed the pledge. The first two signees — Republican state Rep. John Rubin of Johnson County and Democratic state Rep John Wilson of Lawrence — are no longer in the Legislature. And the Open Kansas website, openkansas.org, is defunct.
No, openness doesn’t come easy in Kansas. As an excellent series last year by the Kansas City Star pointed out, Kansas is one of the least transparent state governments in the country. Everything from access to records to recording legislative votes is fraught with secrecy, limits and exceptions that make it hard for the public to keep tabs on routine government action.
Last session, lawmakers rejected a bill that would have made public police investigative records from cold cases that are more than 25 years old. They approved a bill defining footage from police body cameras as investigative records, meaning such video is exempted from the Kansas Open Records Act.
In Kansas, it’s hard to know who’s behind specific legislation since 90 percent of the bills are sponsored by a legislative committee and don’t have an author’s name attached. And good luck finding out what happened in legislative committees, which don’t keep records of individual votes.
It’s not a requirement for public bodies in Kansas to keep minutes of their meetings. Want to know what businesses received tax incentives from the state to locate here and how much the businesses received? Too bad, those records don’t have to be disclosed in Kansas.
There are plenty more examples. Suffice to say, lawmakers have lots of choices in deciding which transparency issues to tackle.
History shows Kansans deserve better than what they’ve received on the open-government front from their representatives in Topeka. Here’s hoping that starts to change in 2018.