Democrats in Kansas Legislature unveil transparency initiatives

Sen. Tom Holland, center, D-Baldwin City, announces some of the government transparency initiatives he is sponsoring in the 2018 session during a news conference Tuesday with the House and Senate Democratic caucuses.

? Democrats in the Kansas Legislature unveiled a wide-ranging package of initiatives that they say would make state government more open and accessible to the public.

During a Statehouse news conference, the House and Senate minority caucuses offered proposals ranging from putting an end to unrecorded votes, anonymous bills and the so-called “gut-and-go” practice of replacing the contents of a bill in its entirety with the contents of another bill, to requiring the release of police body camera video, as well as records documenting the death or abuse of children in the state’s foster care system.

“One of the cornerstones of democracy is the people’s right to observe their government in action, to watch their leaders make the laws that affect their lives, to judge and evaluate the work of those leaders, and that can only be done in the light of day,” House Democratic Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, a candidate for governor, said during the news conference.

In the early weeks of the 2018 session, transparency issues have moved to the forefront of the agenda, while more complex issues involving school finance and budget negotiations are just getting underway.

Much of the momentum has been driven by media reports, including a series in the Kansas City Star in November, that highlighted many of the common practices in Topeka that make it difficult for people outside the political process to follow, or even understand, what their government officials are doing.

Sen. Tom Holland, center, D-Baldwin City, announces some of the government transparency initiatives he is sponsoring in the 2018 session during a news conference Tuesday with the House and Senate Democratic caucuses.

Democrats haven’t been the only ones calling for more transparency. Last week, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, announced she would introduce legislation requiring individuals who are hired to influence executive branch actions to register as lobbyists, just like lobbyists hired to influence the Legislature must register now.

And on Monday, House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, announced a policy change in the House to require disclosure of names of individuals and organizations that request bills to be introduced by committees, an effort to address so-called “anonymous” bills.

Democrats said they welcomed those proposals, but they don’t think they go far enough. Among the other transparency initiatives they are offering are proposals that involve:

• Requiring recorded votes, both on the floors of the two chambers and in committees, on all motions to amend or approve legislation. Currently, many votes are conducted as unrecorded roll call votes, and in the House, reporters are even prohibited from photographing the electronic display boards that shows how individual members voted on unrecorded votes.

• Imposing a one-year waiting period before elected officials could leave office and register as lobbyists.

• Requiring all electronic voting machines used in elections to produce paper ballots at the time the votes are cast, as well as requiring manual audits of elections.

• Requiring law enforcement agencies to make public disclosure of civil assets they have seized in the course of criminal investigations and providing a clear system for citizens to reclaim property seized from them.

• Prohibiting most statewide elected officers from maintaining any employment outside of state government, a response to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach continuing to engage in private legal practice while also working full time for the state.

• And increasing penalties for violations of the Kansas open records and open meetings acts.

In addition to those, Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said he would continue to push for lobbying reform measures he introduced last year, such as barring lobbyists from buying tickets to events or meals for lawmakers and banning insurance companies that manage the state’s KanCare system from making political contributions to members of the KanCare oversight committee.

Democrats admitted that many of their proposals are in response to long-standing practices in the Kansas Legislature, practices that Democrats themselves have even used frequently.

Last year’s unsuccessful attempt to pass a Medicaid expansion bill, for example, was introduced by Ward on the House floor as a gut-and-go measure that stripped out the contents of another bill dealing with health care, replacing it with the Medicaid expansion bill.

They also wouldn’t rule out the possibility that some of the bills they are proposing will be introduced as committee bills, in hopes of attracting more Republican support.

Other proposals, such as requiring public disclosure of police body camera video, are responses to more recent, high-profile events like the police shooting of an African-American man, Dominique White, in Topeka in September.

“The 2018 Legislature has an opportunity to do the right thing,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said. “Bipartisan cooperation brought great success in the 2017 session. With the same cooperation, we have the ability to make government work better and more open for the people of Kansas.”