The 73-day legislative session fell within the 75 that Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, predicted in December – a relief after last year’s record-breaking 114. But speed and any resulting legislation aren’t all that matter. So does the process, which seems to include less give-and-take and true debate every year.
Among the things that should bother legislators and their constituents:
▪ Rules schmules. A House rule against holding debates after midnight was suspended during the final weekend, as leaders tried to leverage votes and hasten adjournment. Common sense was abused, too, such as when – unbelievably – according to Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, “the full budget bill was not available for us to read at the time of the vote.” Then the House gaveled out for the year without waiting to see whether the sleepy Senate would concur.
▪ Mega-bundling. Much of what passes takes the form of a “conference committee report” that cannot be amended on the floor but only voted up or down. Each CCR is crafted by just six lawmakers, and some contain so many bills and provisos as to confuse even the carriers of the measures. As Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, wrote online about the final budget and tax CCRs, “this produced less than optimal results, and the interests and objectives of 159 senators and representatives were largely stifled.” The days of bills having hearings and substantive floor debates in both chambers are history.
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▪ Wait and hurry up. According to the Lawrence Journal-World’s Peter Hancock, the House and Senate passed 66 bills during the five days of the wrap-up session – compared with 62 from January through March. “But what really catches the eye is the number that went through on that final marathon day that started around 12:30 p.m. Sunday and lasted until 3:30 a.m. Monday: 18 bills in that one day, or more than one per hour,” he wrote.
Legislative leaders also used the last-minute rush technique to answer the Kansas Supreme Court order’s that school block-grant funding was inequitable, waiting six weeks and then introducing and passing a bill in just 48 hours.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, also has used procedure and committee assignments to try to prevent debates and votes on Medicaid expansion, gambling and more, effectively limiting House members’ influence overall.
And there seemed to be as many anonymous, committee-introduced bills as ever, leaving Kansans to wonder about the proposals’ origins and point.
Lawmaking will always be untidy and imperfect. But the 2016 session left a lot to be desired by rank-and-file lawmakers and voters alike. Both deserve better in 2017.