Here’s a story about how just a few Kansas politicians can ruin a neighborhood.
It’s also a story that arms voters with a key question for Kansas Legislature candidates who’ll be asking for their support between now and November.
We’ll call it the story of the Big Ass Poles.
A couple of years ago, the electric company now known as Evergy replaced a three-mile string of utility poles through one of the neighborhoods in Finney’s district. Instead of old-style wooden poles, Evergy planted massive metal ones, some five feet wide and 105-feet tall, in people’s front yards.
Finney’s pretty sure Evergy wouldn’t have done that in a more affluent neighborhood.
“There’s a law from the 1950s that says as long as they go through the exact same route, (Evergy) didn’t have to notify the community,” Finney says.
As a state representative, she theoretically had the power to change that.
For the past two years, she’s introduced bills that would require utility companies to go through a public process. People would have to be notified of big projects, Finney says, and “have a debate or some type of voice in the situation.”
Finney’s a Democrat (her Republican opponent in November is Janet Sue Rine). For two years, she says, the Republican who chairs the House Energy committee wouldn’t even give her bill a hearing. But she kept trying.
“My goal was to keep it out in front of the public, to let everyone know this could happen to you in your neighborhood,” Finney says. “I was just adamant. Because who would put big ass poles like this in somebody’s front yard? It just doesn’t make sense.”
In February, Finney managed to add her language as an amendment to different legislation involving Evergy. Finally, her proposal made it to the House floor.
“I had Republican, bipartisan support,” she says. “It passed 123-2.”
From there it headed to the Senate, where the committee that deals with utility issues scheduled a hearing for March 17. Finney lined up people to testify, but, she says, committee chair Ty Masterson, a Republican from Andover, canceled at the last minute with no explanation.
“That was entirely because of the COVID issue,” Masterson told me, saying he published notice of the cancellation “the day before.” The pandemic was looming and he figured his committee didn’t have enough time to process “a very complicated issue,” Masterson said. Also, “I didn’t want to bring a bunch of people up to a tight committee room.”
But that didn’t stop Masterson’s committee from inflicting some classic Kansas lawmaking on Finney’s proposal to give homeowners a voice on big utility projects in their neighborhoods: The committee replaced the language in her bill with language easing Evergy’s income taxes, among other things.
After passing a budget on March 19, lawmakers fled for two months, coming back to finish their business in a 24-hour circus on May 21. Among 13 bills that became law this year was the Senate’s “substitute” for Finney’s bill.
With nearly 9,000 people infected (at that point), 185 dead and thousands out of work, unsightly utility poles in some Wichita front yards were the least of the state’s worries.
But that wasn’t the point when Finney stepped up to the microphone, after Rep. Nick Hoheisel, R-Wichita, explained exactly what they’d done, to call out her colleagues for their craven habit known as “gut and go” — the method by which senators gutted her original bill and were going with favors for Evergy instead.
It’s no secret that Kansas legislators of both parties use gut and go to hustle through legislation they haven’t passed in an open, transparent way.
“That’s common every session when you get to the end,” Masterson told me. “The bill numbers are just shells at this point,” he said, explaining that “the issues do not necessarily correlate” to whatever language was in the original bill.
But those bill numbers are one way the public can keep track of a bill’s original intent. So swapping out the language is not harmless. It’s sneaky, disingenuous and hostile to the people of Kansas.
The good news is, in the years since the poles went up, Evergy has renegotiated with property owners and made other investments in Finney’s district.
The bad news is: Legislators’ addiction to gut-and-go weakens democracy in Kansas.
We’re in election season. Candidates are asking Kansans for votes. Here’s a pro tip: Make them promise an end to gut and go.