In early February, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle sounded so certain, adamant even, when she declared that this legislative session would be different.
Kansas, she insisted, was not opposed to transparency.
The Kansas City Star series “Why so secret, Kansas?” had outlined a pervasive culture of secrecy within state government. The status quo has shielded legislators from taking responsibility for bills they sponsor and for the votes they cast. It has provided cover for police who aren’t inclined to answer questions after fatal shootings.
Even the deaths of children in state custody were shrouded in secrecy.
Wagle promised change.
“The good bills bubble to the top,” she said during a town hall meeting. “We’re not coordinating to kill bills; we’re not coordinating to be secret.”
… In all, 19 bills were introduced, each aimed at increasing accountability. …
One would clear the way for the release of body camera footage to the families of police shooting victims. Another bill would be a big step forward for children. That legislation calls for the release of some information when a child dies in foster care, or of abuse or neglect in Kansas. …
Yet nine bills received no hearing, despite having bipartisan support. Many of those measures were the very ones that had strong community backing, including proposals to end the anonymous sponsorship of bills, require recorded votes in committees and on the floor of the Legislature, and stop the practice of “gut-and-go,” where a bill’s contents are stripped out and replaced with entirely different language about a completely unrelated issue.
Wrap your head around this: The bill calling for more openness in child deaths was passed as a “gut-and-go” at the expense of a Senate bill that also should have passed — a measure that would have required the state to compensate people who are exonerated of crimes after they spent time in prison.
Plenty of lawmakers tried to do the right thing on secrecy. …
Responsibility for a lack of follow-through rests with legislative leadership. Wagle and House Speaker Ron Ryckman repeatedly derailed or stalled bills that would have improved government transparency and accountability.
Promises, promises. We heard a lot of them this session, but action was sorely lacking.
— The Kansas City Star