Examine the steps taken by Gov. Jeff Colyer this week to make state government more open, and one question comes to mind.
They weren’t doing these things already?
No, open government has been a wish and a want in Kansas. Former Gov. Sam Brownback led a closed-off, secretive state government that led to frustration from media and anyone seeking the most basic information.
This week brought hope for the future. Colyer signed executive orders designed to make it easier to learn the state’s business. Some of them were so simple, it’s a wonder they haven’t been in place before now.
As governor for 10 days, Colyer has made transparency an early priority and has succeeded, in one area, in separating himself from Brownback’s tenure. The moves have not only made Kansas government more transparent, but Colyer has shown he’ll lead based on his own values. (It’s also a good move considering he’s running to keep the job this year.)
Colyer signed an executive order making the first 100 pages of an open-records request free – it has cost as much as $25 plus fees. The change signals a desire to be more receptive to requests instead of being punitive and discouraging citizens from requesting records by overcharging.
Colyer also signed an order requiring executive branch employees to use government email accounts to conduct business. Brownback and his administration were found to have regularly used private accounts for state business.
A website will be created to list open executive-branch meetings. Cabinet agencies will have public metrics to gauge success. Two more common-sense moves.
Colyer was also part of developing Brownback’s budget proposal that increased funding for the Department for Children and Families, notably relaxing guidelines for the release of information about child deaths or near deaths.
The governor also required sexual harassment training for his branch of government, extending the example set by both chambers of the Legislature earlier in the session.
An additional area where we would like to see Colyer lead is in easing open-records laws so law-enforcement body camera video could be more readily available. Agencies are too quick to lean on exceptions to the law and keeping video unseen. Transparency should filter down to local law enforcement.
As well as Colyer has done in forcing more transparency in the Statehouse, other issues are awaiting his leadership.
His Wednesday address to lawmakers didn’t tackle the elephant that he acknowledged was in the room: school funding. The Kansas Supreme Court has demanded a new funding formula from the Legislature, one that is likely to cost in the hundreds of millions.
Colyer lacked specifics, including putting a price tag on the formula. He emphasized there should be no tax hikes for Kansans to pay for it, and that it must be phased in over a number of years. Put together, that’s an impossible task.
If lawmakers were looking for the new governor to lead the way in finding a funding formula, they were disappointed.
There is time for Colyer to turn around and lead on school funding. Formula finding is on hold while an education-spending study is being prepared for a March release.
For now, though, Colyer is off to an encouraging start by making government more accessible, something that will benefit almost all Kansans. What seemed like easy steps took a new governor recognizing his state had become too secretive, too sensitive.
The challenge now becomes fixing the tougher stuff.