The short legislative session saw the usual unneeded bills, and no lasting fiscal remedy. But some of the ideas that were bundled and pushed through in the final days are worthy of praise and Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature, especially those aimed at promoting transparency and open government.
▪ A bill slamming shut the loophole that allows public officials to avoid the Kansas Open Records Act by using private e-mail accounts or devices. The bill, which passed both chambers unanimously, was inspired by the award-winning reporting of The Eagle’s Bryan Lowry about the Brownback administration’s use of private e-mail to send a budget proposal to lobbyists. The e-mail travails of Hillary Clinton and other public officials also spurred action. But it’s just common sense in 2016 that a “public record” should be defined by what it says, not whether it’s on a personal device or sent from a private e-mail account.
▪ A measure to make the Kansas Supreme Court Nominating Commission subject to the state open-records and open-meetings laws. It also will require the governor to release the names of applicants for openings on the Kansas Court of Appeals – something Brownback has declined to do since lawmakers gave him authority to appoint Court of Appeals judges, subject to Senate confirmation. Too bad the bill doesn’t obligate him to release names when he fills vacancies on the Sedgwick County District Court.
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▪ A proviso in the budget bill directing the Legislative Coordinating Council to work with the Information Network of Kansas to implement live audio streaming of certain legislative committee hearings next year. That should help Kansans statewide hear, if not yet see, the legislative process in committee, where much of the heavy lifting of lawmaking is done. It also will help bring the Legislature into this century, taking advantage of the tech infrastructure included in the Capitol restoration.
To their further credit, lawmakers approved badly needed pay raises for some of the workers at the troubled Osawatomie and Larned state hospitals, and decided the crying need for more Kansas Highway Patrol troopers justified a hike in vehicle registration fees.
In timely legislation that addressed prison crowding and reflected Kansans’ changing views, the Legislature also reduced penalties for first- and second-time possession of marijuana. An act criminalizing revenge porn – the release of nude or sexual videos or images of someone without his or her consent – passed unanimously.
And though lawmakers should not have further meddled in local governments’ property tax decision making, the legislation was better as passed than as proposed, making allowances for increased public safety costs, for example.
In a wrap-up session built mostly for speed, the efforts to shed more light on government were an especially pleasant surprise.