Politics & Government

Legislators absent most on Fridays

TOPEKA — A handful of state senators have played hooky from the Statehouse more than a dozen times during the most recent two legislative sessions, blaming their absences on everything from illnesses to career obligations.

The average senator missed six days out of the possible 94 work days over 1 1/2 legislative sessions, according to state records available to the Topeka Capital-Journal. Sixteen senators exceeded the average, while five had unblemished attendance during the 2009 legislative session and so far this year.

One-fourth of absences were on Fridays — traditionally a light-duty day on the Senate floor but potentially busy outside the chamber, depending on committee assignment or leadership rank.

All legislators are paid for every day of the session, including weekends, whether at the Capitol or not.

Those with perfect attendance consider it a point of pride.

"People elected me to do this. I need to be here," said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, who didn't miss a day in the period reviewed.

Senate Vice President John Vratil, R-Leawood, said attendance was part of a four-year contract to represent Kansans.

"It's important for elected legislators to do their job," said Vratil, who also hasn't had any absences this session or last.

For others, life gets in the way. Senators played hooky to tend to health problems of their own or a family member, engage in political campaigns, travel on legislative trips or tend to private business commitments.

Republicans Jeff Colyer of Overland Park and Ty Masterson of Andover had the lowest attendance in the period reviewed. They were absent 17 of 94 days, or 18 percent of the total.

Among nine Democrats, Sen. Chris Steineger of Kansas City missed the most — skipping 13 days, or nearly 14 percent.

Colyer is a surgeon who routinely schedules procedures on Fridays in Johnson County, although he adjusts his work regimen around meaningful Senate business. He said he has been present for 97 percent of floor votes during the two sessions.

"The reason I missed a few votes was to attend to a dying family member," he said. "Last year and again this year, I am the only senator who is leading by example and voluntarily cutting my own pay by 10 percent."

Masterson, who works in construction and real estate, said he has missed two of 532 floor votes since joining the Senate in 2009. He defended the decision to trim his legislative workweek.

"I tend to push business to Fridays," said Masterson, who believes the Senate log presented a distorted view of his work ethic. "It would leave the impression I'm not there. I would say it's a false impression."

Steineger, a Democratic candidate for secretary of state, said his time outside the Senate chamber is filled with political business.

"It's a fallacy that this Legislature is a part-time job," Steineger said.

Other senators with double-digit absences over the sessions: Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, 16 days; Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, 15 days; Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, 14 days; and Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, 11 days.

Sen. Roger Reitz, R-Manhattan, said there is more to serving in the senate than just showing up.

"The real issue is quality of participation," said Reitz, who missed one day in the 2009 session and none in 2010. "If they're giving quality time, it's far better than just being there all the time."