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Open records bill leads to debate on closed meetings in Kansas Senate

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, at 9:03 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, at 10:48 a.m.

Senate Republicans found themselves arguing in defense of closed-door caucus meetings while trying to pass a bill designed to increase public access to open records on Wednesday.

The Senate gave initial approval to Senate Bill 10 on Wednesday. The proposed law would require that any public records that are less than 25 pages and can be provided in less than one hour be supplied to the public free of charge. The Republican-backed bill passed easily, with no votes against voice.

But the debate was far from quick and easy.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, took over the discussion by introducing an amendment that would make all Republican and Democratic caucus meetings in both the House and Senate subject to open records and meetings law.

“I think we should practice what we preach,” Hensley said.

The amendment was defeated 30-8 after Republicans voiced opposition.

Closed caucus meetings are rare. Rachel Whitten, spokeswoman for House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said that there have been no closed House Republican caucus meetings under current leadership.

But closed meetings do happen on occasion. Most notably, Senate Republicans held a closed meeting last year before a key tax reform vote.

Sen. Jacob LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, the bill’s sponsor, voted against Hensley’s amendment.

“I think that this is a good bill. It’s about openness in government,” LaTurner said.

“I think that that amendment was an attempt to change the story. Heaven forbid Republicans get any good press this session.”

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said closed caucus meetings are sometimes necessary so that members can speak to leadership freely.

“To vote against this … is not a vote against good government or open government,” Bruce said. “To the contrary I think it’s a reasonable approach to limit our caucuses in some cases so that there is not press availability.

“The final decision is made in a publicly announced forum … in broad daylight. There is no secret action by the majority party.”

Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, however, argued that because Republicans can form constitutional majorities in both the House and Senate without any Democratic votes, the meetings should be open to the media.

“Most Kansans understand why you don’t want to have all the deals cut with doors closed and curtains drawn,” Haley said.

Hensley offered another amendment, which would have required all committee meetings to be broadcast online. Senate Bill 413, introduced last week, would set up four committee rooms for live streaming. Republicans argued that the bill should have a chance to go through the legislative process, and the amendment was withdrawn.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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