(TNS) — Nearly a quarter of the laws passed by the Kansas Legislature last year started out as bills on entirely different subjects — a symptom, critics say, of the lack of transparency in state government.
A bill dealing with debt collection transformed into one dealing with crisis intervention centers for people with mental illness or substance problems. A bill focused on cemetery districts became legislation to prohibit guns from public hospitals.
And a bill about penalties for sexually violent crimes morphed into legislation on drunken driving.
Of 104 laws passed by the Kansas Legislature last year, 24 started out as unrelated legislation, according to an analysis by the state's nonpartisan Legislative Research Department. Lawmakers stripped out the original contents of bills and replaced them with entirely different legislation, a move commonly known in Topeka as a "gut and go."
The analysis was conducted at the request of Rep. Jason Probst, a freshman Democrat from Hutchinson, after The Star last year highlighted the gut-and-go tactic as part of its investigation into secrecy in state government.
The researchers also looked at a legislative tactic known as the "Christmas tree," in which multiple unrelated pieces of legislation are added to a bill. The analysis found that 43 bills — 41 percent of the laws passed last year — could be characterized as "Christmas trees."
Probst, a former journalist, has proposed legislation to eliminate "gut and go," but that idea has received a cool reception in Topeka.
"Another lawmaker said, 'Well, this is a tool I use and I don't get rid of tools at home and I don't get rid of tools here,'" Probst said Thursday night at a Topeka town hall hosted by The Star and the Kansas Press Association. "And I said, 'Yeah, it's a tool and I get that, but it's a butter knife. And you're using a butter knife to serve as screwdriver, a crowbar and a paint scraper all in one.'"
The tactic is not unique to Kansas. Lawmakers in Oregon refer to it as "gut and stuff"; Hawaiian legislators call it "gut and amend." But some states have taken action to restrict its use to increase transparency, and others don't use it at all.
While the phrase "gut and go" has been widely used in Topeka for several years, it's not an official legislative term and different lawmakers offer different definitions.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, asserted during the town hall that the tactic is used only at the end of the session as a way to cope with tight deadlines as June approaches.
"We're not trying to hide anything," she repeatedly said.
However, Wagle's claim overlooks the fact that the tactic has been used as early as March in recent years, including in 2015 when Republican leaders repealed the state's school finance formula with a bill that originally dealt with information technology audits.
Wagle also argued that the Legislature's rules require that a piece of legislation must pass one chamber before it can be swapped into another bill. That is contradicted by numerous examples, including a 2016 telecommunications bill she opposed.
Asked to clarify, Wagle disputed The Star's definition of the term and in a heated phone call Friday claimed that this and other examples were simply amendments.
"You can do anything at any time. You can amend any bill. That's an amendment," Wagle said. "... It happens all the time. People change the contents of a bill and then it has to be voted on by both sides before it becomes a law. It's not a sneaky thing."
Wagle contended that this process is not secretive because a bill that has been transformed into an unrelated measure still requires approval by the Legislature before it gets to the governor.
"Our laws allow us to amend a bill in a committee. ... It's not a 'gut and go' in committee. It's an amendment," she said.
Wagle only considers it a "gut and go" when it happens through House and Senate negotiations conducted toward the end of the session on must-pass legislation.
Ten minutes into the conversation, Wagle asked that her comments be considered off the record. The Star maintains that her comments were part of an on-record interview that was conducted after multiple inquiries to her office.
Asked what was tangibly different from a Senate committee doing it in March to negotiators doing it in June, Wagle repeatedly asserted that The Star was misrepresenting the process and claimed that Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, agreed with her.
Reached Friday afternoon, Hensley said he was perplexed.
"I don't know that I've ever had a conversation with her about it. I don't recall. Because in my mind a gut and go is either done in committee or on the floor," he said.
Hensley said House and Senate negotiators typically bundle multiple bills, which is different than gutting a bill and replacing its contents.
"I don't think she's trying to deceive anybody. I just think she doesn't have the best understanding at least from my viewpoint what a gut and go is," said Hensley, who noted that he supports the idea of restricting the tactic.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a moderate Republican from Overland Park, also disagreed with Wagle's definition.
"A gut and go is any time the entire contents of a bill are removed," Clayton said. "This can happen and has happened on the floor and has happened in committee."
Clayton had to write a legal definition of the term as part of a new bill that would eliminate anonymous legislation. Fear of having a bill gutted is often cited as a reason that lawmakers avoid putting their names on bills.
"This is like the old law school argument: What is a chicken?" Clayton said, noting that she worked with the Legislature's head attorney in the Office of the Revisor of Statutes to craft the bill.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who repeatedly sparred with Wagle during the town hall, said she "is either wholly uninformed on the rules after 30 years (in the Legislature) or misleading for political purposes."
Ward said that it was possible that Wagle was trying to narrow the definition of the term in the face of efforts to reform the process. He said many committee chairs stockpile bills to have vehicles for their pet legislation as the session progresses.
"A gut and go is where you take a bill, delete all of the contents of the bill and substitute the contents with another bill in place," he said. "That can be done at any step of the process. The most common use is by committee chairman around the end of turnaround (the session's halfway point) or the end of session."