Late-night legislating makes an unwelcome return to the Statehouse, leaving Kansans worse off

March 31, 2022 3:33 am

“Nothing good happens after midnight,” was the phrase repeated by Kansas legislators asked about late-night sessions. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

You just had to look at the timestamps on stories from the Legislature last week to see something was amiss. One posted at 1:34 a.m. Another went up at 3:54 a.m.

Welcome back to the Kansas Legislature after dark.

I don’t want to imply that those times align exactly with when legislators wrapped up their work last week. It takes awhile to pull together stories. But the Senate’s session lasted into the evening on Monday and Tuesday, with Wednesday’s meeting stretching to roughly 1:30 a.m. on Thursday morning. Lawmakers have been here before in previous years, and even later. Late nights and early mornings still create problems for senators and representatives, and leaders have used control of the clock as a blunt force punishment.

“I think it’s a game that’s being played to vote how they want you to vote,” said Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City. “I think it’s dangerous.”

Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, said late night sessions were “a game that’s being played.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

He’s far from the only one to sound such alarms. I talked to senators and representatives from both parties, and three of them used exactly the same phrase when talking about late hours: Nothing good happens after midnight.

“We should not — outside of very rare circumstances — be creating laws late at night,” said Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson. “Generally we are tired and groggy and our minds aren’t as clear or sharp as they should be for a group of people tasked with deciding the rules nearly 3 million Kansans will have to live under.”

“It would not be my first choice to have to work after the midnight hour because we are usually tired and uncomfortable after a very long day sitting in our chairs in the chamber,” said Sen. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka.

The most tragic consequence of late-night sessions came nearly a decade ago, when Rep. Bob Bethel, R-Alden, died in a single-car accident. The House of Representatives then created a “midnight rule,” which sets a maximum cutoff time for the chamber. It can be suspended, however, and legislators have done so before.

No such rule exists in the Kansas Senate.

Let’s sketch the issues with late-night sessions. First, and most obviously, they impose on legislators’ ability to serve constituents. I don’t care how young or old you are, working late into the evening and early morning produces subpar results. How many times did you create an especially fine school essay in the wee small hours? Precisely never, I’d wager.

Sen. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, said lawmakers are usually “are usually tired and uncomfortable” when a late-night session rolls around. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Second, as mentioned above, they can create dangers for those trying to drive home late at night. Finally, and perhaps most important, they hide the work of the Legislature from the public. Reporters do their best to stay up and track what happens, but what about members watching from the gallery or online?

These problems merit more than hand waving or dismissal. They strike at the goal of open, transparent government. They reek of political power plays and ideological games.

“This is a game that’s been played a long time,” Doll told me. Although now a senator, he voted against suspending the Bethel rule while serving as a representative. “We went forever my first couple of years,” he added.

Yet, just because something happened in the past doesn’t mean it should happen now. Just because 1:30 a.m. is earlier than 4:30 a.m. doesn’t make it a preferred end time.

Kansas legislators have power over their calendar. They can always choose to extend the session, as they did during the Brownback years. They can call a special session if needed. They have abundant options to find the time necessary for challenging votes.

If they go late, someone has made a choice to do so.

On the Senate side, that means the ultimate responsibility rests with President Ty Masterson. For the House, that means Speaker Ron Ryckman.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said the House of Representatives’ midnight rule hadn’t been suspended thus far this session. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“As of yet, House leadership has responsibly followed the rule this session,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita. “I pray they will continue to do so, not only for the safety of House members, but also for the safety of those they may meet across the center line following late night legislating.”

That’s welcome news — for now. As the session drags on, and as lawmakers face the necessity of passing a budget, funding schools and advancing their pet projects, the desire for arm-twisting late-night sessions will only grow. Leaders will peer at their watches and narrow their eyes, imagining the concessions they can wring from recalcitrant members.

Legislators should resist the temptation and listen to colleagues such as Doll, Dietrich, Probst and Carmichael. Those bills, regardless of their importance, can wait until tomorrow.

Nothing good happens after midnight. In Topeka or anywhere else.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.