Politics & Government

Lawmakers blame software for delays during session, bristle at cost

Kansas State Capitol Dome in Topeka
Kansas State Capitol Dome in Topeka The Wichita Eagle

The Kansas Legislature has spent $14 million on software that legislative leaders say has been plagued by glitches and was responsible for delaying votes.

The Legislature contracted with Propylon, an Irish technology company, to build custom software to assist in writing bills, conducting research and organizing the Legislature’s daily calendar.

The software package, which launched in 2011 and is known as KLISS, cost nearly $9.7 million to build and implement. Lawmakers and staff began complaining of glitches shortly after its launch, and the state has spent an additional $4.3 million over the past four years on support services in an effort to fix the programs.

Legislative leaders don’t see that as money entirely well spent. Problems with the software caused delays throughout the 2015 legislative session, which went for a record 114 days, and lawmakers are reluctant to throw more cash at the problem.

“We don’t have the money to waste on something that’s never going to work,” House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said with frustration during a Thursday meeting of the Legislative Coordinating Council.

The council, which includes Merrick and other legislative leaders, decided against approving another $225,000 to pay the company to make additional fixes during the next six months. The council did approve paying the company $90,000 for general IT support between now and January.

The previous fixes have created new problems, according to Merrick’s office. This year, Propylon’s software began deleting sections of bills, forcing the Legislature’s legal staff to rewrite entire bills when a new amendment was requested.

This would sometimes require hours of work from staff members, which caused votes to be pushed back, according to Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.

Hensley said this caused friction during the marathon legislative session, explaining that some Democrats perceived the delays as stall tactics by Republican leaders when they were actually caused by genuine technical difficulties afflicting the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, which oversees the writing of bills.

“I hearken back to the old days, when everything was done by hand and it worked pretty good,” said Hensley, who has served in the Legislature for 38 years. “You would think a software package would expedite or speed up the process. In this case, it’s actually slowed us down.”

Revisor Gordon Self said he’s “dissatisfied with the lawmaking component of KLISS and the lack of improvement in it to help us provide our documents in a timely fashion.”

‘Quantum leap’

Propylon’s CEO, John Harrington, said in an e-mail that his company has helped bring Kansas into the modern era since it began working with the Legislature in 2006.

“At the time they had a number of different old technologies supporting legislative process work, as well as staff who would work with scissors and sheets of paper to cut out text and stick it with glue to sheets of paper to represent amendments in the chamber. ... We were engaged to implement a software solution that brought a modern tool set to the legislature where information could be keyed once and reused between departments,” Harrington said in an e-mail. “The digital copy in this case becomes much more important and the legislative website can be updated immediately on the action of events in the legislature so transparency for legislative information is greatly improved.”

Jim Miller, the Legislature’s chief information technology officer, said the system has made a “quantum leap” since it was first implemented in 2011.

“Back during the 2011 session, there were what I would call daily ‘showstoppers,’ issues with the system that literally brought the process of the Legislature to a halt. … If you look at this past session, we had zero showstoppers,” Miller said.

“Does the system still have problems? The answer is emphatically yes,” Miller said. However, he argued that it is definitely salvageable and called improving the system a shared responsibility of both the company and the state’s IT staff.

It would cost significantly more to create a new system, he argued, than it would to pay Propylon to continue to refine the current system.

Miller also said the system has created several benefits for Kansas residents. For example, bill explainers and committee notes are posted online, where they are easily accessible to lawmakers and residents alike.

Harrington noted that publishing bill updates automatically on the Legislature’s website led to the state receiving an A rating for transparency from the Sunlight Foundation in 2013. “Kansas has been forward-looking in terms of providing legislative information to the public, and that is a credit to the state,” he said.

Reconsidering payment

Lawmakers remain frustrated with aspects of the system and how they affect the internal operations of the Legislature.

House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, said that problems with the system have caused some votes to be delayed for several days. He called the software burdensome and said it bogs down the legislative process.

“And we’ve paid a tremendous amount of money, taxpayer money, to make sure that process goes smoothly,” Burroughs said.

Kansas spent $725,000 on Propylon’s support services during the 2015 fiscal year, which ended last month, a payment of more than $60,000 a month at a time when the state was grappling with financial problems.

The state was initially slated to spend $625,000 for support services for the 2016 fiscal year – but that is up in the air after Thursday’s meeting.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, complained that the Legislature’s researchers, attorneys and secretaries were sometimes forced to work into the wee hours because of technical problems with the system.

“They’re here all night long. Trying to input into the system. … It’s just malfunctioning,” Wagle said. “So that’s why there was a tremendous outcry when we were asked to sign another year’s contract.”

Hensley said that the civil servants who work for the Legislature get paid the same amount each day whether they work for eight hours or 18 hours.

Kansas in promotions

Adding to lawmakers’ frustration is that Propylon has promoted its contract with Kansas in its efforts to get new clients. The company lists its contract with Kansas on its website and, according to lawmakers, has touted it to lawmakers from other states at conferences.

Wagle launched into a speech about this point Thursday.

“It’s not a functional system. And then to hear that Propylon is out at legislative meetings saying that Kansas is excited about Propylon, we’re not,” Wagle said. “It’s not functioning, and we don’t like to be used as endorsement for Propylon, because we believe the system’s broken. And we’re sorry we’ve spent as much money on it as we have, because it’s clear that all the years of trying to work on it, we’re still not to a situation where the system works efficiently.”

Harrington, who attended the meeting, did not respond directly to Wagle’s criticism. He said his company needs more detailed information on the issues raised.

“Legislative IT is working to get the exact details, and when they do, we will be happy to help them resolve it where we can,” he said. It was a large project “and has involved many necessary changes to how people do their job,” Harrington said.

He said Propylon would work with the Legislature’s IT staff to determine whether software changes were needed.

The company is based in Dublin, Ireland, but has a U.S. office in Lawrence. Other clients listed on Propylon’s site include the Irish Parliament, the general assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland and the state legislatures of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Dakota.

The Legislature began using Propylon’s services before either Wagle or Merrick had assumed their current positions as Senate president and House speaker. Rather than extend the company’s contract for another year, at Wagle’s urging, legislative leaders have set up a special committee to determine how to proceed.

Lawmakers have limited options: They can agree to pay Propylon to make more changes to the system, they can accept the system as it is and continue to deal with glitches, or they can pay another company to set up an entirely new system. Any of these options would cost taxpayers money.

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