TOPEKA — Kansas Democrats sought support Thursday for bills ending reliance on private email to conduct official government business, extending public disclosure laws to recipients of state contracts, slowing the transition of lawmakers into lobbyists, as well as limiting the legislative session by 30 days every other year.
Email and lobbying portions of the legislative wish-list shared during a news conference by House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley have met opposition among Republican leaders, but the idea of imposing new restrictions on the length of sessions or lawmakers’ compensation might have bipartisan appeal.
“Good government and transparency is the very foundation of our democracy,” said Burroughs, of Kansas City, Kan. “Having an open and transparent government is absolutely critical to all the work we do in this building on behalf of Kansans.”
Hensley, D-Topeka, said at the Capitol the state needed to create a two-year ban for House and Senate members, as well as some executive branch appointees before their entrance into the lobbying profession.
He touted Senate Bill 163 as a vehicle for imposing a cooling-off period before a state legislator or Cabinet-level employee of the executive branch could become a registered lobbyist in Kansas. In recent months, two Kansas House members accepted lobbying positions before resigning their seats. He pointed to former House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican who stepped down and took the job as president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.
“These are steps we can take to make Topeka run more efficiently and effective,” Hensley said.
Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence, said the time had come for the Legislature to approve House Bill 2300 and eliminate use of private email accounts to perform state business. Those outside accounts don’t fall under provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act.
In 2015, the budget director for Gov. Sam Brownback came under fire for using a private email account to share elements of the proposed budget, including tax hikes, with lobbyists who have close ties to the administration.
Wilson also advocated for adoption of House Bill 2153 to create an easily accessible database of contracts awarded by state government in Kansas and mandating efficiency studies on contracts prior to approval.
“When it comes to the state budget, critical investment in education and public safety,” Wilson said, “the people of Kansas have a right to know what is taking place.”
Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said he would introduce a bill in the Senate to cap legislators’ pay at 90 days during odd years and at 60 days during even years. The assumption is that without compensation, most legislators won’t want to be in Topeka.
The 2015 session, due to a prolonged budget and tax debate, lasted a record 114 days. The standard session is scheduled for 90 days.
Holland said the extension of sessions since 2011 when Brownback took office had cost taxpayers nearly $2 million.
“With overwhelming majorities in both chambers, the governor and the Republican leadership should be ashamed of this serious mismanagement of tax dollars,” Holland said.
Democrats hold about one-fourth of House and Senate seats in Kansas, which necessitates Republican collaboration on legislation proposed by the minority party.
Meanwhile, Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said she would pursue adoption of a bill to require governing bodies to more precisely describe reasons for moving to an executive session of a public meeting. Her bill would amend the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
Generally, the state’s city councils, county commissions and school boards go into closed-door meetings after declaring the justification to be a discussion of “personnel matters of nonelected personnel” or by pointing to another clause in state law. Her bill would instruct officials to outline the “particular” subjects to be discussed in a confidential manner.
Democratic Reps. Annie Kuether, of Topeka, and Jim Ward, of Wichita, said House Bill 2500 was introduced in an effort to prevent the Citizens Utility Ratepayer Board, or CURB, from making changes, without approval of the Legislature, to powers or duties of the board assigned to protect interests of residential and small commercial utility customers.
Appointees to the five-person board recently have discussed overhauling work of the board, which participates in rate cases before the Kansas Corporation Commission. The board has restricted ability of CURB’s executive director to speak with lawmakers and journalists.
“Statements by CURB board members have raised concerns about their intent to continue the agency’s successful 25-year effort to fight for lower utility rates for consumers and small businesses,” Kuether said.