Some Kansans resent that school districts and local governments send lobbyists to Topeka, which is why a bill being pushed by some Wichitans would bar such use of tax dollars. But criminalizing such lobbying would stifle needed debate and could lead to bad, uninformed law.
Senate Bill 109, which had a standing-room-only hearing Monday, says “no public funds may be used directly or indirectly for lobbying” or even to pay membership dues to a group that lobbies the state. It would allow for some communication at legislators’ request – in other words, “don’t call us, we’ll call you” – and for some state or municipal officials to communicate, “through the proper official channels, requests for legislative action or appropriations which are deemed necessary for the efficient conduct of the public business or actually made in the proper performance of their official duties.”
But it also says violators would be guilty of a class C misdemeanor, which could come with a $500 fine or a month in prison.
And what would count as unlawful lobbying seems murky.
Would members of the Kansas Board of Regents, who visited the Capitol Thursday, be subject to arrest and prosecution if they spoke to lawmakers about relevant proposals such as that to allow concealed-carry of handguns on campuses? What about the prosecutors and law enforcement authorities who regularly help shape crime-fighting legislation? Some argue the prohibition could extend to chambers of commerce.
And how exactly can a public official on a tax-paid salary be speaking as an individual while giving legislative testimony during a workday, as Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn claimed he was doing Monday in favor of the bill? Even as he tried to show he had Peterjohn’s back at the hearing, state Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, blurred the lines between Peterjohn’s job and supposedly unrelated testimony by suggesting that the conservative constituency Peterjohn represents would agree with him on the lobbying ban.
And as Saline County Commission Chairman Randy Duncan asked: “After reading this bill, I have to wonder, is it even constitutional?”
Legislators should be the best people to appreciate what’s at stake.
This week alone, for example, they have been considering whether to prohibit the implementation of Common Core academic standards, hold back third-graders not reading at grade level, and recalculate how the state distributes funding meant to help at-risk students. It would be irresponsible to make such decisions without hearing from the experts – those from school districts and classrooms, not just from privately funded conservative think tanks.
By blocking the wealth of data-rich information they receive from the representatives of school districts, counties, cities and more, legislators would be muting the voices of key constituencies and limiting their own exposure to the expertise they need to make good law. That makes passing this one a bad idea.