Kansas Statehouse plays three-card monte with stacked hearings: Can you keep track?

February 15, 2023 3:33 am
three playing cards arranged for three-card monte

Hearings at the Kansas Statehouse this week have been purposefully crammed together to reduce transparency and exhaust advocates, writes Clay Wirestone. Like a sucker’s card game, there’s no winning against the house. (Getty Images)

Welcome to hell week.

The Kansas Legislature, after a month and a half of introducing problematic bills and occasionally embarrassing itself in public, decided to cram in a cavalcade of lawmaking this week. Anti-LGBTQ bills? Yep. Attacks on public health authorities? You got it. Hearings on a flat tax that would bankrupt the state in a jiffy? Sure thing.

This pileup raises alarm bells for me. Lack of transparency, you see, doesn’t necessarily require hiding things from the public. Sometimes it simply means creating so much news it’s impossible to follow.

Advocates on these issues are being run ragged, darting from hearing room to hearing room like so many overcaffeinated rabbits.

Statehouse reporters take a look at the legislative calendar each night and despair. They have to perform information triage, figuring out what readers want to know about, what they should know about and what issues might erupt from out of nowhere. While Kansas Reflector and other nonprofit outlets have bolstered the Topeka press corps, they can’t be everywhere all at once.

Finally, even if advocates had an infinite supply of energy and news outlets could hire droves of journalists, the public can only take in so much. You have lives, for goodness’ sake!

I’m writing this column on Tuesday, but we already have example of how the overflow exacts a toll. Moms Demand Action, a gun safety advocacy group, held its action day Monday. That also happened to be the day that the House Education Committee discussed a bill barring transgender athletes from youth sports. Or as former Rep. Stephanie Byers put it on Twitter:

Even more happened Monday. The House Democrats released their 2023 legislative session policy platform. Hearings were held on reorganizing the Kansas Corporation Commission, education spending, water management and fracking, and new incentives for the film industry. I could go on.

We saw much the same Tuesday. The Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee committee listened to testimony about a bill that would effectively ban gender-affirming care for Kansans under age 18. Legislators also chewed over a bill that would reshape the Kansas tax code by replacing a progressive tax system — in which the wealthy pay a greater percentage of their earnings — with a flat one.

Also on tap: Hearings in the House welfare reform, commerce and corrections committees. Meanwhile, Kansans were invited to Black Legislative Day at the Statehouse.

On Wednesday, the tomfoolery continues. At 1:30 p.m., the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee talks about legalizing fentanyl test strips. Also at 1:30 p.m., the House Health and Human Services Committee talks about legalizing fentanyl test strips. No, I didn’t copy and paste accidentally. They’re both doing the same thing at the same time.

Hell week didn’t happen by accident.

Everything that happens at the Capitol — including the policies passed there — happens because of choices made by individuals. Legislative leadership, in concert with committee chairs, choose which bills advance. These same leaders have watched how Kansans mobilize against bills meant to strip rights from their friends and families.

So why not conduct a lot of other business at the same time and see what they can get away with? If someone complains about not being able to submit testimony or make all the hearings, leaders can then tut-tut condescendingly and say that people should prioritize.

As I wrote last week, however, Kansans no longer have that luxury.

Roe v. Wade has been overturned, and basic rights of women, people of color and LGBTQ people have been threatened like never before. They matter. But so does the state tax system and the authority of county public health officials. So does raising awareness of gun violence. All of the issues matter, and Kansans should not be forced to pick a grenade upon which to throw themselves.

For now, the only way out is through. Legislators, reporters, activists and the general public have to grit their teeth and make the best of a terrible week. Bill introductions and committee hearings can’t be rescheduled by public vote, at least not yet.

But once we’re done, can we all agree that transparency is a serious problem? Kansas Reflector ran multiple pieces of analysis and commentary last year and this one about ways that lawmakers could make the Statehouse more open and easier to follow.

We deserve a legislative process that enlightens, rather than exhausts.

We deserve open legislative hearings rather than hours-long festivals of wackadoodle propaganda.

We deserve a simple and reliable way to track bills through multiple forms and negotiations.

As this week proves, we deserve a schedule that doesn’t stack and shuffle hearings like legislative three-card monte. (Hint: The house always wins.)

I’ll see you later this week. Those of us who have the privilege of working in and around the Kansas Legislature have the responsibility to keep you informed. Despite the long odds, we’ll keep at it.

Stay strong, friends.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, the 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 columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited 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, and cnn.com. 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.