Kansas’ Open Records Score Takes Drastic Hit

Although the state scored in the top 10 as recently as 2012, the Center for Public Integrity has given Kansas and 11 other states an 'F' grade for their opaque records.

by Oliver Morrison, The Wichita Eagle / November 12, 2015
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback flickr/Gage Skidmore

(TNS) -- Kansas is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to transparency and accountability, according to a new study by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative media outlet whose goal is to uproot corruption and abuse of power.

The study highlights examples of lobbyists buying influence with free golfing trips and meals – even when states have passed laws forbidding it – or charging hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars for open-records requests.

Kansas was one of 11 states to receive an overall grade of F. Thirty-six states received a D grade, and only three states received a C grade: Connecticut, California and Alaska.

In 2012, Kansas was ranked among the top 10 states in the report, but the methodology has changed since then so that the results aren’t fully comparable. One of the biggest changes is that the report now considers how fully the state makes available its internal data in a format that is easily digestible to the public.

Kansas, along with many other states, has not yet caught up to changes in public expectations for making state government data available, according to the report.

“Kansas has open records and meetings laws that are intended to be applied liberally to all levels of government in the state,” the report said. “But they were enacted long before the advent of cell phones and email and even the Republican attorney general has said the law is outdated.”

The report highlighted multiple examples of when The Eagle’s reporting exposed gaps in Kansas’ openness and accountability. For example, it cited The Eagle’s reporting about Gov. Sam Brownback and his budget director using private e-mail accounts to discuss details of their proposed budget.

The article on Kansas’ specific performance, which is included in the overall study, cites several nonpartisan figures, including academics and journalists. But it directly quotes only two politicians, both of whom are Democrats. The article quotes critics of Brownback but did not offer a response from Brownback or an indication that Brownback had ever been contacted for a response.

After the report was released, House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, pushed back on the idea that Kansas was failing at transparency when he was approached at the Capitol on Monday afternoon.

“I believe that we’re very transparent. Every meeting’s open,” Vickrey said, noting that the media and public are welcome to attend hearings and debates. “Where we are missing the mark, we certainly need to look at it.”

Bills that would set up video streaming of legislative committee meetings and increase the public’s access to government records have passed the Senate in recent years but have been unable to gain traction in the House. Vickrey said this was often a result of timing, explaining that transparency-related bills could get overlooked as the Legislature juggles other matters.

Internal auditing

The state ranked last for internal auditing because the audits of state programs and agencies must be approved by a legislative committee.

“Since 2013, the committee has refused to authorize several audits, including one on the cost of carrying out the death penalty and another on how well the state’s foster care system is protecting children,” according to the report.

The problem is that the state’s Governmental Ethics Commission has staff shortages, executive director Carol Williams said in the report. This means that the office makes sure officials fill out the proper forms but can’t verify whether the information in those forms is correct.

New York, in contrast, earned a B-plus grade because of the well-funded state comptroller’s office, which can audit the state without interference from the governor or legislature, according to the report. The comptroller issues annual reports in which it routinely identifies waste in state spending, including recently $500 million in the state’s Medicaid program.

State budget process

Kansas was marked down for not publishing a citizen budget with nontechnical language to a broader audience, and it received low marks (25 out of 100) for not making budget documents accessible to the public in an open data format.

It also was marked down for not requiring that every bill and budget proposal get scored for its likely costs and benefits by a nonpartisan budget office.

Idaho, in contrast, earned an A, where the public is free to watch the legislature’s joint budget committee meetings or, if they can’t make it, can stream the video, provide input during the hearings and view the full budget bill online.

Judicial accountability

The state is ranked 43rd for judicial accountability. The state was dinged for not having laws that require state judges to give reasons for their decisions, for not having a process to evaluate the performance of judges and for not making the evaluation of judges available for the public to look at.

The state was also dinged for allowing judges to enter the private sector after leaving the government. Finally, the state was dinged for not regularly auditing judges’ asset disclosure forms and for not providing that information to the public in an open data format.

Procurement

The state was ranked second-worst in the nation for “procurement” because, according to the report, the director of purchasing is allowed discretion to give contracts by “sole-sourcing” instead of by competitive bid.

According to the report, there is no mandatory training for procurement officials, and in practice, companies are punished for procurement violations. It also doesn’t make its procurement bids available to the public in an open data format.

Political financing and state pension fund management

The state was given high marks for both political financing (sixth) and for the management of its state pension (15th).

But the report still singled out areas for improvement, including a need for better reporting of political contributions by outside groups and for more detail in the disclosure forms of the pension funds’ placement agents.

©2015 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.