Kansas Lawmakers Unite for Transparency

Kansas was one of 11 states to receive an F on transparency last year, and both Republican and Democratic legislators are determined to change that in 2016.

by Bryan Lowry, The Wichita Eagle / February 2, 2016
The State Capitol in Topeka, Kan. David Kidd

(TNS) -- Kansas was rated as one of the least transparent states in the nation last year by a national study, but lawmakers of both parties are looking to change that.

Several bills being considered in Topeka this session seek to make Kansas government more open and accountable to Kansans. Lawmakers of both parties are pledging to support these efforts.

This past week, Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, and Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence, became the first two lawmakers to sign a pledge to support efforts to increase Kansas government accountability. The pledge, drafted by new nonprofit Open Kansas, asks lawmakers to support legislation that will increase the public’s access to information.

Open Kansas noted that Kansas was one of 11 states to receive an F when the Center for Public Integrity rated states on transparency last year.

Open records

One reason the center gave Kansas such a low grade is a loophole in the state’s open records law that allows state officials to conduct public business on private e-mail.

SB 361, which will be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, would close that loophole.

The issue surfaced a year ago when The Eagle reported that Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget director had used a private e-mail account and personal computer to send two lobbyists a draft of the governor’s proposed budget several weeks before it was unveiled to lawmakers. Under current law, this communication fell outside the bounds of the Kansas Open Records Act.

The bill, which is recommended by the Kansas Judicial Council, says any record made by an officer or employee of a public agency made “in connection with the transaction of public or official business” would be considered a public record “regardless of form, characteristics or location.”

That change would close the private e-mail loophole.

Open meetings

Also on Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee will also weigh SB 360, a bill that would change the Open Meetings Act so that public bodies have to disclose more information when they go into closed sessions.

“It’s not enough to say personnel matters…you would have to say something like unauthorized use of a credit card,” said Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, the bill’s sponsor. “What we really want is for the public to know some idea of what’s being discussed.”

Live-streaming of committee hearings

When Rubin signed the Open Kansas pledge, he touted his support for live-streaming committee hearings, noting that much of the Legislature’s important business takes place in committee rooms rather than on the House and Senate floor.

Two Wichita-area members introduced legislation Thursday that would enable Kansans to listen to legislative committee hearings on their computers.

HB 2573, introduced by Rep. Blake Carpenter, R-Derby, and Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, would enable live audio streaming of committee hearings. That would be paid for through Information Network of Kansas, a state board that writes grants to support greater citizen access to state and local government information through technology. The bill is similar to other transparency legislation, which has repeatedly passed the Senate but failed to advance in the House in recent years.

“This goes beyond tweeting or making a pledge to be open,” Carpenter said in a news release. “This bill represents creative problem-solving to find a new and workable solution that will get the job done and bring committee hearings to anyone who wants to listen in.”

©2016 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.