Opinion Columns & Blogs

Kansas needs better lobbying laws

Recent scandals, out-of-control spending and ongoing fiscal crises have all boosted interest in lobbying. Much of the new interest, understandably, is targeted on Washington, D.C. More scrutiny should trickle down to states that need it, such as Kansas.

Overall, Kansas ranked a disappointing 42nd among states in lobbying transparency with a score of 41.9 percent, according to State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers. This recent study examined both state lobbying-disclosure laws and accessibility to the disclosed information.

In terms of lobbying-disclosure laws, Kansas ranked 44th with a score of 37.8 percent. In all, 37 different aspects of Kansas' lobbying laws were examined, including the breadth of registration for lobbying activities, the degree of reporting required, and exemptions for government. Kansas' laws achieved only 14 of the 37 components analyzed. The state's disclosure laws need to be broadened and deepened, but that alone is not sufficient.

The study also looked at the accessibility of the information for interested citizens, legislators and journalists. After all, it's not enough simply to require lobbying activities to be disclosed. The information must be accessible in a timely and clear manner. A total of 22 components of accessibility were analyzed, including whether current and historical data was available and its level of detail.

The study also assessed how users could sort and analyze data by different criteria, and rated the accessibility of the website. Kansas received a score of 10.1 out of the 22 criteria, ranking it 23rd in the nation.

But the state's problems go beyond disclosure and accessibility.

Like other states, Kansas does not subject all lobbying to the same standards. Some lobbying is conducted and funded by private interests. The state requires individuals in the private sector to register and report their lobbying activities but exempts certain people in the public sector, even though they pursue the same lobbying activities, with taxpayers footing the bill.

For example, Kansas exempts the governor's office, the executive branch, the legislative branch and government agencies from registering for lobbying activity. In addition, government agencies are not required to disclose to the same extent as lobbyists, even if they are undertaking the same lobbying activity.

State-level lobbying is not theoretical, nor merely a subject for argument. Key legislation hangs in the balance, and a great deal of money is involved. In January 2010 alone, more than $128,000 was spent in Topeka on lobbying — not exactly chump change and certainly more than enough to warrant attention from legislators in pursuit of reform.

Kansas, like many other states, could stand improvement on all counts, particularly its disclosure laws. Such reform will improve the behavior of lobbyists and enforce greater discipline on the lobbying process. By expanding transparency and enforcing a single standard, Kansas also can improve government and set an example for states across the nation.