Opinion: No more legislation written by lobbyists

I’ve got the perfect New Year’s resolution for Kansas legislators: no more lobbyist-authored bills.

Last year, Kansas lawmaking was marked by two dramatic “fails,” both involving lobbyist-authored acts. One of them failed, the other passed, and both were problematic.

First came anti-abortion “Value Them Both” amendment, sent to the voters by the Legislature and rejected by 18 percentage points in August. Closely watched nationally and even overseas, the campaign contained many controversies, including its confusing ballot language. “VTB” opponents even suggested that the language was deliberately confusing — highly legalistic and not clear at all about the amendment’s intent, which was to authorize the Kansas Legislature to criminalize abortion in nearly all circumstances, which they had the votes and the plans to do, perhaps even calling themselves into special session right after the vote, had it passed.

Oddly, the amendment itself was not written by the Kansas Legislative Research Department, or KLRD. Despite making major changes to the state constitution, legislators allowed two anti-abortion interest groups to write the ballot language. By contrast, the staff of the KLRD are nonpartisan professionals. The bills, bill summaries and other proposals they write are not based upon their own personal political views. Rather, KLRD staff draft legislation as requested by legislators. Not lobbyists or politicians, KLRD people are experienced experts in the state constitution, existing federal, state and local laws, court rulings, laws in other states and other background needed to write good legislation. With so much at stake this summer, why did the legislators ignore the KLRD and have interest groups draft the amendment instead?

Lobbyist-authored bills cause even more problems when they pass. Last year’s authorization of sports betting illustrates this perfectly. An exposé by the New York Times illustrated these problems. Not only were key legislators showered with gifts, but a provision was slipped into the provision that has resulted in Kansans reaping almost none of the promised tax revenue so far. This “carry over” provision allows the gambling companies to write off the costs of offering free bets to get new customers hooked on their product. It also allows them to carry forth these losses to future years. The NYT reporter found that the whole bill was in fact written by the gambling industry. Had it been drafted by the KLRD, they easily could have red-flagged this loophole. In September and October, the two largest online sports betting providers paid less than $42,000 in state taxes on $247 million of activity. This figure started to rise later in the year, but is still paltry compared with what the state could have collected. A similar bill failed to pass in Missouri — not due to the public interest, but because of infighting among pro-betting interest groups.

Speaking of Missouri, another bill that passed there last year illustrates the depths to which these lobbyist-authored bills can sink. By making it a crime to sleep on public land without authorization, Missouri essentially criminalized homelessness — without providing any additional support for affordable housing. This awful bill was literally cut and pasted off the Internet by its sponsor — and the interest group that posted it was not even in state.

Kansas and other states employ nonpartisan professionals to draft legislation for a reason. The debacles here and in neighboring states last year all point to the same conclusion: Legislators should resolve right now not to propose or pass any lobbyist-written legislation in 2023 or afterward.

— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.


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