So many of us in Kansas lead lives that don’t involve government much.
We vote and pay our taxes, sure, and renew our driver’s licenses every six years. But we don’t commit crimes. Family members thankfully are healthy and don’t need government assistance. We don’t get involved in politics, but trust our legislators to be people of integrity and to look out for us.
Boy, have we had one pulled over on us.
A series of stories by our McClatchy friends at the Kansas City Star this week, which also ran in The Eagle, revealed a culture of secrecy in Kansas government so strong that it makes one wonder how we’ve survived it.
From the governor’s office to local agencies, the series showed we live in one of the most secretive states in America. Government’s nature of hiding facts from its people has seeped into many areas, enabling state and local agencies to act without oversight and conduct business as if the people they’re supposed to serve are instead adversaries.
Among the findings in the series:
▪ The Legislature’s brazen ways of introducing bills without an author’s name is outdone only by its shameful “gut-and-go” system of stripping language from a bill and inserting far different language without a hearing or time for opposition to realize what’s happening. A bill about road construction on Monday could be about wind farms by Friday, and could be passed before anyone outside the chamber realizes.
▪ The Kansas Department for Children and Families seems more interested in covering its own tail than the families it is committed to serving. Social workers are told to get families not to talk publicly about cases. They are told to shred notes about critical cases. Mistakes are swept away instead of being noted so others don’t make the mistake again. Former DCF workers complain of a culture where media attention is more of a worry than helping children.
▪ The privatization of KanCare, the state’s Medicaid system, has created a culture in which contractors attempt to get patients or their families to sign off on care plans with far less coverage than their current plan. Patients are sometimes asked to sign a blank online page without knowing the new plan.
▪ Kansas allowed $530 million in tax credits in 2015, but the state won’t disclose what individuals and businesses received the credits. (By comparison, that’s $132 million more than this year’s public safety budget.) Not even legislators get to see a list of tax credits. Missouri’s list of tax credits can be easily found online.
▪ When a law-enforcement officer shoots and kills someone, his name won’t be released and his body-camera video doesn’t have to be made public as an exception to the Kansas Open Records Act. A Wichita family had to sue to find out the name of the police officer who shot their son in 2015.
To this point, there’s little being done by lawmakers to unlock the secrecy. It will take a shift in culture by many Kansans to bring change and let the light in on state government. Citizens have to commit themselves to taking an active role in the oversight of our elected leaders and state agencies.
The first way to do that is by being informed. Keep up with media reports on government efficiency. Subscribe to newsletters from lawmakers and the groups that act as watchdog groups for those lawmakers – take a look at both sides and make up your mind. Write to a lawmaker with your viewpoint on an issue.
There’s no better time than now, months away from the 2018 primaries for statewide and local elections. Kansas primaries, particularly on the Republican side, are often as or more important than the general election, so learn about the candidates and their views – especially how they feel about secrecy within the legislature. If their views aren’t known, write and ask them. Kansas elects a governor in less than a year. Make it someone with an unmistakable desire to open and clean up state government.
There are two more keys to reduce secrecy in Kansas government: integrity and guilt. The Star series did more to spotlight stealthy and unaccounted government than thousands of constituent letters (though those never hurt). The legislature and so many state agencies have been called out by these reports, we can only hope those who work in Kansas government and want sunshine on their work can be heard. Maybe those who prefer hidden government can be guilted into working openly.
Hidden agendas have for too long dominated the priorities of state government. It can get better incrementally, but only if Kansans inside and outside public office take stands against the status quo. It’s not making us better.