In the Kansas House, when lobbyists ask for new laws, their names now go on the bills

photo by: John Hanna/AP

Two of the dozens of Kansas House bills that now list the names of groups and lobbyists who asked lawmakers or committees to introduce them, are seen Monday, March 25, 2024, at the Statehouse in Topeka. The House started adding the information to bills this year as a way to make it easier for people to find out who was behind what proposals.

TOPEKA — For years, pinning down the source of a bill in the Kansas Legislature could be a chore for lawmakers’ constituents. Committees sponsor almost 85% of the proposals, so finding the group or lobbyist responsible could require questioning multiple lawmakers or, in recent years, reviewing YouTube videos of meetings.

But this year, the Kansas House is making it a little easier for the state’s residents to find out who wants what from its members. Besides a number and official sponsor, each bill now lists who asked for it, be it a lawmaker at someone else’s request or an individual lobbyist for a specific client. The change started in January.

It’s an unusual move for any state legislature. While at least a handful of states require lobbyists to list specific bills of interest to them in reports open for public inspection, the Council of State Governments knows of no other state legislative chamber that’s actually listing lobbyists and groups on its bills — not even the Kansas Senate.

“I’m thrilled to see it,” said Heather Ferguson, a Kansan who is director of operations for the government transparency group Common Cause. “It helps to rebuild some of the trust with the public in their elected officials and in their institutions and in the legislative process in general.”

In Kansas, House Bill 2527, which would rewrite laws on how the state sets electric rates, was requested by a lobbyist for Evergy, the state’s largest electricity company. A Kansas Farm Bureau lobbyist proposed HB 2691, which would require utilities seeking to use eminent domain to obtain an entire tract of private land for transmission lines and other projects to pay the owners 50% more than fair market value.

In some offices and hallways under the Kansas Statehouse’s copper dome, the response to the new practice has been less enthusiastic than Ferguson’s reaction, though lobbyists won’t publicly criticize it. Eric Stafford, who lobbies for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said he doesn’t care, “as long as it’s consistent.”

Because the extra disclosure is spelled out in the House Rules — it’s No. 7.01 — the Kansas Senate isn’t required to follow it.

In fact, Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, said he hadn’t really thought about the idea, “but it doesn’t scare me.” However, he also asserted that when it comes to who is behind a bill, “People tend to know that anyway.”

At least seven states — Colorado, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Utah — have disclosure rules requiring lobbyists to provide information about specific measures their clients are watching, according to Common Cause. Kansas requires lobbyists to file reports on their spending six times a year, but they don’t have to list individual measures.

In 2015, a California businessman who was later was a Republican nominee for governor, John Cox, proposed a ballot initiative to require the state’s elected officials to wear stickers or badges “displaying the names of their 10 highest campaign contributors” during public legislative meetings. The drive to get it on the ballot failed.

Some members like the House’s greater transparency and appear willing to go even further with it.

For example, Rep. Stephanie Sawyer Clayton, a Kansas City-area Democrat, responded with “bring it on” when she learned of the 2015 initiative in California, though, she said, lawmakers might end up looking like servers at TGI Fridays restaurants.

“I will wear those pieces of flair all day because most of my top donors are awesome groups and even awesomer people,” she said. “I’d gladly do that.”

The Kansas House actually changed its rules to require more information on its bills in 2021, but House leaders and staff said it took the Legislature’s technology staff three years to work out the details. The House Rules Committee member who pushed for the change, Democratic state Rep. Boog Highberger, considers it a meaningful — but small — step toward improving government transparency.

Rep. Adam Thomas, a Kansas City-area Republican, said that increased transparency is good, and lawmakers can expect plenty of questions if their name is attached to a bill, whether or not an interest group also is listed.

“Now we’ve got to really know what a bill does and what it means and the implications of it,” Thomas said. The change was adopted without discussion, and the rules had broad, bipartisan support.

In many states, most measures are sponsored by individual lawmakers, and that was the traditional practice for the Kansas Legislature. Fifty years ago, nearly 70% of bills and resolutions in Kansas were sponsored by individual lawmakers. This year, the figure was a little more than 15%, after decades of committees sponsoring an increasing percentage of bills.

Allowing such so-called “anonymous” bills was among the practices that led The Kansas City Star to declare in a 2017 series on Kansas state government that the process of passing laws in its Republican-controlled Legislature was “among the least transparent in the country.” Critics still say the public often has trouble finding out the status of bills on major issues until it is too late to stop them from passing.

But David Adkins, a former Kansas legislator who is now executive director and CEO of the Council on State Governments, said lawmakers may have moved to having committees sponsoring bills because it seemed to give them the same kind of credibility as a large, bipartisan group of individual sponsors. It might have been a way to help them cull bills more easily during their annual 90-day session.

And, he said, listing the group or lobbyist who requested a bill might serve the same purpose, allowing lawmakers to decide how to vote without reading the text.

“At the top of the funnel, time is your worst enemy,” said Adkins, who served in the Legislature from 1993 through 2004.

But Adkins also worried that the House’s practice, meant to restore trust, could lead the public to view legislating as “transactional.”

“In some ways, one might argue it makes legislation resemble a NASCAR vehicle, with prominent sponsorship stickers placed on a car,” he said.


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