Statehouse scraps: Kansas lawmakers shred transparency, good and bad bills, hated photo

January 28, 2023 3:33 am
Ad Astra statue on top of the Statehouse dome

The Ad Astra statue atop the Statehouse aims for a brighter tomorrow on a gloomy Jan. 24, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

While I spent much of this week fending off the sinus pressure and congestion of a head cold, Kansas legislators spent the week fending off public scrutiny and refusing to acknowledge that folks really, really don’t want to ban abortion.

Yes, we’ve come to week three of the session. The bloom is off the rose, so to speak, but we still have months to go. That means wading through hearings and bill introductions that likely won’t amount to much. But reporters and columnists can’t ignore them either. That random bill from a random lawmaker may end up as a vital test vote in May.

As usual, Kansas Reflector staff covered a multitude of stories, but even more happened. Here’s a roundup from the week that was.


Transparency shame

I don’t want to say I told you so, but I told you so.

Last week, I wrote about a resolution opposing federal protections for the lesser prairie chicken. A hearing had been held, but no text was available online for the public to read. A full Senate vote, while expected, ended up being delayed. I wrote: “Did Senate leadership plan to pull a fast one on Kansans by introducing legislation that no member of the public could actually read and shoving it through the chamber? It sure looks like it.”

This week, they did it. On Monday, the Senate suspended its rules and moved to emergency final action to pass the resolution. It still wasn’t available for the public to read online, and a roll call on the vote wasn’t taken. So we didn’t know what the text said, we didn’t know how senators voted, but the Statehouse whirled on.

Worse was to come, believe it or not.

Lesser prairie chicken perform dancing
Lesser prairie chicken perform dancing or “drumming” on a lek (mating display) in northern Oklahoma. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the lesser prairie chicken as threatened in Kansas and endangered in other portions of its range. (Getty Images)


‘Chilling effect’

Let’s move over to the state House of Representatives to learn how.

On Thursday, Republicans there voted down a host of transparency measures. They included barring floor debate after midnight (a rule is currently in place but can be suspended), limits on bundling measures together into mega bills, guaranteeing parties the right to make their own committee assignments and lowering the threshold for requiring recorded votes.

Few of these would have revolutionized the place. But they would have made it easier for the public to know what’s going on. Who can follow debates after midnight, save a handful of journalists with internalized self-hatred? Who can tracks bills when 29 (that’s right, 29) are smashed together? And shouldn’t we know how our elected representatives vote?

Finally, the Kansas City Star’s Katie Bernard reported that Senate President Ty Masterson “wants to reopen discussions about the scope and management of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission as the commission’s director pursues an investigation into campaign finance violations involving Republican officials.”

“I kind of hope it has a chilling effect if it’s the guilty until proven innocent model and legislators aren’t comfortable asking questions,” Masterson said, in a really rather remarkable admission.

Republicans tried to pull this nonsense last session, as well. The attempt then looked flatfooted and self-serving, and Masterson clearly wants to protect members of his party from outside scrutiny. Insiders have traded rumors about this investigation for months, and the implications could be vast for state Republicans.

As Lt. Columbo might say, just one more thing on this subject. Reflector editor Sherman Smith’s story about young lawmakers, dubbed the “Future Caucus,” included a curious aside.

The legislators “said they accomplish more through private discussions than they do in public debate,” Smith wrote. While that sounds all well and good, it also suggests that the lawmakers prefer to operate in the dark rather than the light. Why can’t they be open about cooperating in a bipartisan way? Do these private discussions end up worsening the Statehouse transparency crisis?

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, failed to convince House colleagues to implement a rule guaranteeing Republicans and Democrats retained authority to designate committee assignments for their partisan colleagues. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, failed to convince House colleagues to implement a rule guaranteeing Republicans and Democrats retained authority to designate committee assignments for their partisan colleagues. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Republicans hate this photo

My column about Gov. Laura Kelly’s State of the State Address earlier this week included a screenshot from the Jan. 19 meeting of the Senate Committee on Federal and State Affairs. You might know that as the meeting where a bill allowing towns and counties to ban abortion was introduced.

As the video (starting at two minutes and 12 seconds) shows, committee chairman Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, and Sen. Rick Kloos, R-Berryton, enjoy a hearty chuckle as Senate Bill 65 was introduced. I noted that laughter in my column, along with imagining some of the thoughts that could have been going through these men’s minds.

And, oh my, Republicans online didn’t like that.

After I shared the photo on Twitter, some lied. They claimed the photo couldn’t possibly have been from the time the bill was introduced, because lawmakers don’t laugh at such times. I was accused of taking the screenshot from a different point in the meeting. Did they not realize every committee meeting is livestreamed?

They next argued that someone made a simultaneous, off-microphone comment about the bill being simple (or not). To which I respond, show me a distinction without a difference. The proposed “joke” was about a bill being introduced to erase women’s constitutional rights. Laughter ensued on a subject that few find amusing.

The upshot? Kansas Republican leaders are terrified of the optics of their white, male members making light of women’s reproductive health. They wouldn’t want you to know at least one other bill banning the procedure has been introduced — HB 2181 — with more restrictions on the way.

So let’s all remind ourselves of the photo again.

Kansas Sens. Rick Kloos and Mike Thompson laugh after an anti-abortion bill is introduced.
Kansas Sens. Rick Kloos and Mike Thompson laugh after an anti-abortion bill is introduced in the Senate Committee on Federal and State Affairs. (Screen capture from Kansas Legislature YouTube channel


Good bill, bad bill

Sen. Ethan Corson, D-Fairway, has introduced a bill to increase Kansas’ minimum wage. Right now, that wage sits at an embarrassing $7.25 an hour, on par with the national minimum. According to a piece from the senator in the Shawnee Mission Post, the wage would be increased gradually until reaching $16 an hour in 2027.

That’s a good idea and a good bill.

The ACLU of Kansas, on the other hand, highlighted a bill that proposes “proposes an old-fashioned literacy test, with a curriculum that includes the very Constitution bills like this one contradict, before individuals can exit probation, fully reenter community, or vote.” The text and sponsors of House Bill 2012 can be found here.

That’s a bad idea and a bad bill.

Let’s try for more of the former and fewer of the latter in all those weeks ahead.

Correction: An earlier version of this column included an incorrect hometown for state Sen. Ethan Corson.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His Reflector columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and website across the state and nation. He 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. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent 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.