Kansas lawmakers got so crazy with this year’s ‘shells’ of bills they confused even themselves

Motion blurred image of male hands playing shell game
“The general public doesn't know — or care — what number they are,” Senate President Ty Masterson said of bill numbers in the Kansas Legislature. Late in each session, lawmakers often substitute the contents of one bill for a bill with a different number. (iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Today is Monday, May 3, otherwise known as the beginning of an event that would be better suited for the nearest dirt-floored arena than the stately Kansas Capitol: The promised Republican “veto-override-a-rama” of Gov. Laura Kelly’s whack-a-mole effort to prevent the worst bills from this year’s Legislative session from becoming law.

While we await whatever fresh manure emerges, here’s some pregame entertainment for you, the “general public” of Kansas.

Let’s help Sen. President Ty Masterson resolve a question that flared behind the scenes back on April 8. That day, as Senate Republicans worked through the business of their usual caucus meeting, there was a bit of confusion as to which bills they’d actually passed.

It started when Sen. Caryn Tyson of Parker asked what had become of Senate Bill 273. For today’s entertainment, it doesn’t really matter what that bill is about (tobacco money).

What matters is the Kansas Legislature’s very bad habit of governing by “gut and go,” or using empty “shells” of bills to swap out the language in one bill for language in a different bill late in the session, so they can pass laws that haven’t gone through the usual process. That process being democracy.

There’s a reason, after all, that the Legislature’s website has a prominent “Find Bill” search box. To find a bill, you have to know the number. That’s how you can see what the bill actually says, read the testimony from stakeholders, follow its amendments and ultimately who voted for it and against it.

All of that gets recorded so you, the “general public,” can keep track of what your representatives are actually doing.

Let’s listen in.

Tyson: “What happened to Senate Bill 273?” (As introduced, this bill had to do with the governor’s power in emergencies.) “…Where are we at on that?”

Sen. Kellie Warren of Leawood said that bill hadn’t yet come out of conference committee. “It will hopefully today.”

Tyson: “273?”

Warren said something about a bill regarding the child advocate office then asked Tyson if she was really asking about Senate Bill 40 (this one was ultimately about the governor’s power in emergencies, as well as school mask mandates and many other things).

Tyson: “No, I’m talking about 273, that the Senate passed 27 to 12.”

Warren: “That was put in, in conference, to Senate Bill 40 that we have voted on and has become law.”

Tyson: “OK. Because that’s not where it shows.” (Tyson’s referring to what’s posted on the Legislature’s website.)

Warren: “Not shows on what, 273?”

Tyson: “Yeah, the chess game is getting a little difficult even for a legislator to follow, the shell game. I’m just saying that right now on the website, it looks really bad. On 2145 that we just talked about, it doesn’t have a hearing at all. It has a hearing in the House but didn’t cross the House floor. You have to follow the chess game.”

“What’s 2145,” a couple of people asked.

Tyson: “The one we just talked about.”

Multiple people: “It’s 273.”

Actually, Tyson meant to say House Bill 2451.

Tyson: “Let me show you. 2451 has a hearing on it. That’s it. Didn’t cross either chamber. The contents of 273 were stripped by the House, the bill that we just talked about was put into 273 when it crossed the House floor. I mean this chess game, we can say we’re transparent —”

Masterson: “So, the numbers don’t matter. The contents matter.”

Tyson: “I know, to us. I’m just saying if we want to be transparent.”

Masterson: “Numbers change every year, every session as we move through conference. I mean, that’s not unusual by any stretch. It’s the contents that matter.”

Tyson: “What makes it unusual this week, we’ve started posting all this stuff and started adding transparency. So we’re going to start to be held more accountable than we ever have in the past. I’m just pointing that out.”

Warren: “Nothing that we’ve discussed today has been put into 273.”

That’s why she was asking, Tyson said. Masterson said the bill she was asking about had already passed the Senate and the House and been signed by the governor “as SB40.”

They moved on. At the end of the meeting, though, Masterson circled back to “the numbers thing” she’d brought up.

It was “exacerbated this year,” he said, because legislators thought the session would be cut short by COVID.

“There’s lots of numbers floating that were introduced in the House and the Senate. So that is true,” he said. He appreciated Tyson’s “good reminder” that they all had to pay close attention.

But for the people of Kansas trying to pay attention?

“The general public doesn’t know — or care — what number they are,” the Senate president said. “They care what passes or doesn’t pass and the process it went through.”

Dear member of the general public, you might not have looked for a bill today but someone who cares about you did — a concerned citizen, an activist, a lobbyist, and most certainly a journalist. If you care about how hard the Legislature’s making it to follow along, you might want to let Sen. Masterson know.

This column has been updated to correct wording in Sen. Caryn Tyson’s quote about the difficulty of following the chess game.