Last week Kansans learned that the governor’s draft of a two-year state budget was shared with lobbyists and other outsiders as well as top administration officials in December via private e-mail accounts.
Yet with that revelation still fresh in their minds, 86 GOP Kansas House members declined Monday to guard against official subterfuge in the future.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, proposed considering private communications by public officials to be open records when a substantial public interest can be shown. If his amendment was not the answer, legislators can still stand up for openness at the highest levels of state government by otherwise passing legislation to slam shut this obvious loophole in the Kansas Open Records Act.
The weak explanations offered by the Brownback administration – that the use of private e-mail addresses for the budget draft was not meant to skirt KORA, but because many staff members were at home for the holidays – are beside the point.
Kansans should be able to see and scrutinize their government, and have confidence that open-records laws are keeping up with technology. Those doing the public’s business should not be able to hide their work by simply clicking from a government to a private e-mail account or switching to a different computer or other device.
While it’s great that The Eagle’s Bryan Lowry was able to obtain the e-mail from a source outside the Governor’s Office and let readers know about it, such disclosure should be ensured by law in Kansas, as it is in 26 other states.
The e-mail also should inspire a badly needed Statehouse debate about the porous wall between lobbying and governing. But with or without that – and there’s little chance the political will exists to tackle that issue – there are other things the Legislature can do to demonstrate its commitment to openness. Among them:
▪ Push for the House to join the Senate in supporting online streaming access to legislative committee hearings. Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, has 23 co-sponsors for this year’s version of the Kansas Transparency Act, HB 2148, which would enable live audio broadcasts of hearings in designated committee rooms. Both the House bill and a Senate version, SB 86, are scheduled for hearings next week. Or lawmakers at least could make steady use of the cameras already installed, such as in the room where the House Federal and State Affairs Committee meets.
▪ Support a renewed effort by Sen. Jacob LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, to bar government agencies from charging exorbitant fees for open-records requests.
▪ Fight to save the House-passed rule against “mega-bundling” of three or more bills, an end-of-session tactic used to leverage votes that can lead to bad, unvetted law. Senate leaders reportedly want to preserve their power to bundle freely.
By acting on such measures, the Legislature can improve transparency and public trust.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman