Kansas lawmakers moving ahead with audio-visual technology upgrade at Capitol

Tom Sawyer, the House Democrat leader from Wichita, sits alone for social distancing at the Capitol during a meeting in which lawmakers encouraged development of a better audio and visual system to connect remotely with legislators and the public. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Tom Sawyer, the House Democrat leader from Wichita, sits alone for social distancing at the Capitol during a meeting in which lawmakers encouraged development of a better audio and visual system to connect remotely with legislators and the public. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Leaders of the Kansas Legislature offered bipartisan support Wednesday for development of an estimated $5 million plan for modernizing audio and visual technology at the Capitol to improve communication access to meetings.

The idea is to overhaul equipment at the statehouse so legislators can more easily participate from afar while improving the public’s ability to observe action on the House and Senate floor and during committee meetings of both chambers. The Legislative Coordinating Council gave approval for planning to continue regardless of whether federal CARES Act funding is allocated for the project.

“This is something we probably should have done a few years ago,” said Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who chairs the Senate’s budget committee. “The pandemic has made it more important.”

The Legislature has struggled with technology breakdowns after COVID-19 forced an early end to the 2020 session. During the LCC meeting attended in-person at the Capitol by Senate President Susan Wagle and House Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, it was difficult at times to hear comments by some of the seven council members.

In other business, the LCC voted to transfer $5 million from the state’s coronavirus response account to a job creation fund. About half of the Legislature’s original $50 million appropriation for COVID-19 has yet to be spent.

The council rejected a recommendation to pay a consulting firm an extra $34,000 for negotiating with utility companies to reduce redaction in the public version of a report on the high cost of electricity in Kansas. The Kansas Corporation Commission supervised the cost study, which led to controversy about deletion of information Evergy and other companies deemed confidential.

A revised edition of the report is expected to reduce by 85% the information blackened out at the urging of utility companies.

“I can’t think of anything that should be confidential and kept from the public,” said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican.