Frustrated Kansas legislators eager to junk software system for handling amendments, bills

IT chief evokes rancor by suggesting overhaul may take five-plus years

By: - December 31, 2020 9:32 am
Rep. Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican, is adamant the Kansas Legislature efficiently work to obtain a new software system to handle work on bills and legislative business at the Capitol. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican, is adamant the Kansas Legislature efficiently work to obtain a new software system to handle work on bills and legislative business at the Capitol. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Leadership of the Kansas Legislature unsuccessfully pleaded with Propylon to create a software system allowing lawmakers to efficiently handle hundreds of bills each session and deliver transparency to taxpayers monitoring political work at the Capitol.

Now, after years of cajoling, they’ve set the stage for a software rebellion. There’s consensus on the Legislative Coordinating Council, comprised of the seven top legislative leaders, to seek alternatives to Propylon. Perhaps one of the company’s competitors can bring an end to House and Senate members sitting idle for hours waiting for bill amendments to be processed.

Rep. Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican, was unanimously joined Wednesday by Democrats and Republicans on the LCC to extend for six months a $90,000 maintenance contract with Propylon, which has an office in Lawrence. LCC members acted before expiration of a contract Thursday, but rejected a proposal to earmark $200,000 for new Propylon software upgrades through July 1.

The vote reflected widespread frustration with Propylon’s record of performance. It also highlighted alarm with an estimate from Alan Weis, the Legislature’s chief information technology officer, that it would take nearly 5 1/2 years to replace software used to conduct legislative business in Kansas.

“In the corporate world a five-year software upgrade would just not even be a consideration,” Finch said. “There’s got to be a faster way this can be done. We have been talking about these upgrades and changes for over a year. Now, it’s going to be another five years out? That is simply unacceptable to me.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, right, a Topeka Democrat. wamts the Kansas Legislature to upgrade its software system for handling bills during the annual legislative sessions. (Kansas Reflector)
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, right, a Topeka Democrat. wamts the Kansas Legislature to upgrade its software system for handling bills during the annual legislative sessions. (Kansas Reflector)

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat retiring in January, said there was no reason for elected legislators and state taxpayers to endure more unfulfilled promises from Propylon.

“We need to find a new vendor,” he said. “It’s gone on way too long.”

Weis pushed back. He said the Legislature’s previous software reinvention project took more than six years to fully implement. He argued a tentative 64-month timeline was reasonable.

“Personally,” Weis said, “I went through the last update with staff and I don’t see any way we could do it any quicker.”

He said in a memorandum to the LCC the contracts with Propylon “worked effectively to provide both support and project-related services.” The company’s support is essential to resolving software system issues in a timely manner and avoid critical breakdowns, he said. Without ongoing service, he said, the core system’s components could age to the “point of being unsupportable.”

The Legislature has relied on Propylon since 2011 for software needs of KLISS, or the Kansas Legislative Information System and Services. KLISS provides online access to updates on bills, committees, calendars and journals.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican who didn’t run for re-election in 2020, said the software system didn’t allow the Office of the Revisor, which writes and edits bills, to make timely adjustments to legislation during floor debates of the House and Senate. She said the downtime was just as excruciating for a poignant amendment as a silly amendment.

Alan Weis, the Legislature's chief information technology officer, startled Kansas legislators by suggesting it would take nearly 5 1/2 years to replace software used to conduct legislative business. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Alan Weis, the Legislature’s chief information technology officer, startled Kansas legislators by suggesting it would take nearly 5 1/2 years to replace software used to conduct legislative business. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

“My greatest concern through this whole, huge ordeal is the revisors’ office,” Wagle said. “I question if they’ve been accommodated. Once we moved to Propylon, we couldn’t get amendments up on the floor. This is very serious. We’ve just seem to not get problems resolved.”

Gordon Self, who leads the revisor’s office for the Legislature, said Propylon advanced the system over the years, but he still had a list of changes that should be made to ease the workflow.

“Yes, there have been improvements. But I’m not done,” he said.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, the Olathe Republican, said the software changes adopted so far were insufficient and that software systems operating in other states could be the answer to Kansas’ problems.

He said it was clear LCC wanted to issue an RFP for software upgrades and speed the overhaul time frame. He also said the LCC would schedule a meeting in early January before start of the 2021 legislative session to settle on a next step.

“It doesn’t seem to be getting better,” Ryckman said. “We keep getting the same complaints.”

 

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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