TOPEKA — Rep. Becky Hutchins, R-Holton, introduced a bill to ban relatives of school employees from serving on school boards.
The unspoken irony? She didn’t support it.
“It’s too broad,” Hutchins said of the measure, which she submitted on behalf of Rep. John Bradford, R-Lansing, with whom she shares an office. “It does put small districts really in a bind.”
The proposal would have banned anyone with a sibling, parent or spouse employed at a Kansas public school from serving on any school board, even hundreds of miles away.
Bradford asked Hutchins to bring it to the judiciary committee she sits on, and she agreed. Neither her name nor his appeared on it.
More than 90 percent of bills in the 2015 session did not bear the names of anyone involved in authoring or introducing them.
Over several decades, Kansas’ lawmaking system has evolved into one in which legislators introduce hundreds of bills yearly — bills that cost taxpayer money to draft and print — but only put their names on a small number for which they want to take public credit.
Public efforts to explore the origin of bills face obstacles: Lawmakers file proposals for each other, written meeting minutes are user-unfriendly and legislators themselves say some are engaging in a cat-and-mouse game to conceal involvement in controversial pieces of legislation.
“It’s a very serious issue,” said Marge Ahrens, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas. “Anything threatening the right for us to understand the source and the need for legislation is of great concern to us for the workings of representative government.”
Lawmakers across the political spectrum defend the practice, saying it has strategic value and a bill’s source isn’t as important as the stances legislators take during debates and by voting.
Kansas offers lawmakers two options for dropping bills in the hopper: introducing them under their own names or requesting a committee file them.
The Topeka Capital-Journal reviewed legislative indexes recording thousands of bills dating as far back as the 1920s and found a trend in which Kansas shifted from a state with obvious authorship of most bills to one with increasing anonymity.
In 1925, 80 percent of bills had the names of lawmakers on them, but 50 years later only half did. By 2005, three-quarters were committee bills. In 2015, 92 percent were.
To compare with procedures in the 49 other states, The Capital-Journal contacted legislative bill-drafting, research and clerk offices in their statehouses and pored over bill lists and chamber rules. This research indicates Kansas is alone in conducting business this way.
Bradford, who joined the House in 2013, said he wasn’t dodging public scrutiny when he sought Hutchins’ help, and that he openly claimed authorship in town-hall discussions.
“If I put my name on that,” he said, “unless I had at least 25 to 35 co-sponsors, the odds of that bill becoming successful are very slim.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, also says committee bills carry more weight.
“It indicates broad consensus,” Wagle explained, adding that she advises senators with good ideas to take this route.
Most states require all bills be identified with the names of the lawmakers who introduce them, or else use committee bills rarely or for specific situations, such as crafting annual budgets.
In Maine, committees can’t issue bills without special authority, such as to put forth an interim study in bill form.
In Iowa, committees can adopt a lawmaker’s proposal as their own but will include an original bill number that reveals the source.
In West Virginia, lawmakers who vote in favor of issuing a proposal in committee bill form become listed as sponsors.
Idaho appears to be the only state where, like Kansas, almost all bills are committee bills. But each is posted online with the name of the sponsor who brought it to the floor and a statement of purpose that provides contact information for the initial proponents — be that a lawmaker, lobbyist or public agency.
Kansas produced nearly 750 bills last session. One in seven became law. Popular topics drew multiple lawmakers declaring support.
Twenty-four representatives put their names on a proposed Kansas Transparency Act, meant to increase public access to legislative hearings. Twenty-five co-sponsored a bill to end an abortion technique. Forty-five shared a proposal for a Capitol prayer room and 124 co-introduced a resolution honoring clergy.
By contrast, at least three bills since 2013 have sought to ban Kansas’ standards for teaching K-12 math and reading. These prompted hours-long, emotional hearings and debates. In 2013, members of the House education panel said they spent more time on this topic than any other.
Reporters learned who had introduced the bills — Bradford, Rep. Willie Dove and Sen. Forrest Knox — by asking committee chairmen and other Statehouse insiders.
In many states, voters can find a complete list of the bills introduced by their representative or senator with just a few clicks on their legislature’s website.
A number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers said they believe some legislators are abusing committee sponsorship to dodge accountability, but they described other strategic or procedural reasons for the approach that they considered legitimate.
Wagle says using one’s name on a bill can open one up for retribution from other politicians interested in political payback.
And Democrats argue their bills are “dead on arrival” if they bear names, because Republicans aren’t interested in the minority party’s ideas.
“Things have changed,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, recalling several years ago lining up dozens of co-sponsors across party lines for a proposed constitutional amendment requiring Kansas to set aside contingency funds. “If I were to do another run at a ‘rainy day fund,’ I would probably just do it as a committee bill.”
Sheryl Spalding, a former Republican representative from Overland Park, recalls watching colleagues gut a bill she authored and use it as a shell for different content. The experience made her think twice about declaring authorship, because her name could become linked in this way to legislation she didn’t author.
“I just thought it was a goof on my part, to introduce it under my name,” she said.
House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, said committee sponsorship streamlines the process of working a bill, securing a hearing and reaching a vote.
“I think fundamentally that’s the first reason,” he said.
Sponsorship by select committees also exempts bills from annual deadlines for introducing and working them.
House Speaker Ray Merrick’s office declined repeated requests for an interview on matters of transparency in the Legislature.
Following the trail
Committee bills are equally popular in both chambers.
Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, chair of the Senate judiciary panel, says these bills aren’t anonymous because meetings are open to the public and written minutes should document the introducers. He doesn’t believe the procedure is meant to be non-transparent.
“I don’t think there is any strategy,” King said.
But Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, says finding the source of bills seems increasingly difficult, yet can be crucial to understanding the motive behind them.
“What we’ve found, especially in the last couple years, is you can not get to the bottom of it,” said Anstaett, also a board member of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition open government advocacy group. “Anonymity is the antithesis of transparency.”
Most voters don’t attend committee meetings, where they can witness lawmakers, public agencies and lobbyists asking to submit bills. They can read minutes online that record these actions, but not without hurdles:
• Committee minutes often aren’t available online until several weeks after a bill surfaces and draws public attention.
• The bill’s introduction may not appear in minutes with the same date as the introduction date listed on the bill. This depends on how long it takes legislative staff to process the bill.
• Minutes use short, sometimes vague descriptions of bills without bill numbers, because bills don’t have numbers upon introduction.
• Minutes for each day and each committee are separate pdf files online, preventing a quick text search of several days or months. In Idaho, by contrast, minutes are available online as one single, large pdf per committee.
“It shouldn’t be that complicated for our constituents,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, who has served since 1977 and is the longest-serving legislator in Kansas history. “You have to be a fairly knowledgeable student of the legislative process to know how you can gather this kind of information.”
But Hensley, too, says he submits committee bills.
The school board bill — which Bradford says may reappear next session in a narrower version — was introduced Feb. 13. The introduction is noted in Feb. 5 minutes, however, and the minutes name Hutchins, not Bradford, as introducer.
The proposal then became labeled a judiciary committee bill, even though Bradford sits on the education panel, which held the hearings for it.
Asked why he didn’t introduce the bill in his education committee, Bradford said he was working on multiple bills, leading to scheduling complications.
Of the bills passed into law this year, 93 percent were committee bills, according to the Kansas Legislative Research Department.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, believes a lawmaker who submits a bill is responsible for it, even if he or she did so as a favor to another legislator.
“They ought to be able to stand up for what they introduced,” Carmichael said. “I cannot conceive of a reason that someone would introduce a bill which they oppose.”
But others describe the act of introduction as a formality.
“The debate and the votes are what matters,” said Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood. “If somebody wants to bring an issue to the table, I’m more than happy to introduce it.”
Melcher sits on the Senate tax and budget committees, making requests for help from other lawmakers likely because these panels enjoy deadline exemptions.
Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, says he accepts requests from Republicans and Democrats alike.
“I consider bill introduction kind of a courtesy,” said Huebert, chair of the local government committee.
This system encourages the free flow of ideas, Vickrey said, adding that this “is maybe more of a priority than being able to put fingerprints on every idea.”
A few lawmakers, such as Carmichael, indicated they are open to changing the system to increase transparency.
“But I hope folks understand that if we did make a change in that procedure, there will be some less than desirable consequences,” he added. “Particularly as a member of the minority party I would feel that way, because the likelihood of me passing bills in the legislature as a minority Democrat would be relatively small.”