Kansas lawmakers to start pushing transparency initiatives

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, February 2014.

As the Kansas Legislature heads into the third week of the 2018 session, with little progress being made on school finance until a consultant’s report comes out in mid-March, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are starting to turn their attention to issues of transparency in the Statehouse.

Transparency has long been an issue at the Legislature, whether it involves anonymous bills introduced by committees, with no sponsor’s name attached to them, or the “gut-and-go” process in which the contents of one bill are stripped out and replaced with the contents of another bill, or even the degree to which lobbyists have to disclose how much they, or their clients, are spending to influence legislation.

All of those issues have been reported over the years, but they, along with many others, were nicely pulled together and placed into context in a Kansas City Star series published in November that has drawn much attention from the public, not to mention individual lawmakers themselves.

For example, Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, announced Thursday that his committee, and likely several others, were putting an end to anonymous bills.

“The person introducing a bill will have to state their name, and if they’re part of an organization, state their organization, and all of that information will be put in the committee minutes so it will be searchable,” he told committee members, as well as the gathered audience for the meeting.

For many years, individual legislators, as well as members of the public, have been allowed to go into a committee and request the introduction of a bill, and as a matter of courtesy, most committees would agree to introduce it as a “committee” bill, with no named sponsor attached to it.

At times, they would even agree to introduce bills that hadn’t even been drafted yet, so-called “conceptual” bills that would be written up later. But Hawkins said he was also ending that practice, at least in his committee, and that anyone wanting a bill introduced would first have to work with the Revisor of Statutes office to draft it in bill form before it can be introduced.

It’s been a practice that, on the one hand, gives any individual or interest group considerable access into the legislative process, as long as they’re willing to continue working to shepherd their bill toward passage. But it also makes it hard for people, including lawmakers, to shield themselves from scrutiny for introducing controversial or unpopular legislation.

House Democratic Leader Jim Ward of Wichita, a candidate for governor, said in a news conference Friday that he liked the idea, sort of.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Ward said, before adding: “Wait a minute, I thought it was such a great idea, I proposed it as a (House) rule change last year that would require every committee to make note of who requests a committee bill and the content of that committee bill.”

During that news conference with Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka, Ward said that legislative Democrats are planning a news conference Tuesday to announce an entire package of transparency issues, although he wouldn’t go into further detail.

But Hensley may have given a hint about at least one part of the package when he announced that he has filed a request under the Kansas Open Records Act to disclose information about all of the contacts his administration had with lobbyists for CoreCivic — the private prison company selected, but not yet hired, as the preferred bidder on a $362 million contract to rebuild the Lansing Correctional Facility — before those people registered as lobbyists for the company Nov. 13.

One of those lobbyists is David Kensinger, who formerly served as Gov. Sam Brownback’s chief of staff before starting his own lobbying firm, Kensinger & Associates

“I have great concerns about what kind of influence he (Kensinger) had in bringing this project to the state,” Hensley said.

The State Finance Council, made up of the governor and legislative leaders from both chambers, was expected to take a final vote on that project Thursday. But the meeting was abruptly called off when it appeared the project may not have had enough votes to pass due to ongoing questions and concerns from members of the council. That meeting may be rescheduled for as early as Monday, according to the governor’s office.

Meanwhile, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, announced Friday that she wants to introduce legislation requiring anyone who works on contract to influence action by an executive branch official to register as a lobbyist. Currently, lobbyists only have to register if they try to influence legislative action.

“Through discussions in the off-session with legislators from across the country, I learned that many states include the executive branch in their ethics laws and I firmly believe that Kansas should require the same,” Wagle said in a news release. “We need legislation that explicitly states that any person attempting to promote or influence an executive official must report those activities. This will allow for increased transparency in Kansas.”

Kendall Marr, a spokesman in the governor’s office, said in an email that Brownback is generally supportive of Wagle’s idea, although he wants to see the actual bill before making a final decision.

Regarding Hensley’s open records request about lobbying activities on behalf of CoreCivic, Marr said only that the governor’s office is currently processing the request.