Editor’s note: This is the third in a five part series from the Topeka Capital-Journal on government transparency in Kansas. This story examines why there is a lack of modern technology for audio and video of committee meetings in the Kansas Legislature.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, thinks webcasting audio or video of committee meetings in the Statehouse would shine light on the Legislature.
Committees hold hearings, debate proposals and work bills — all crucial parts of the lawmaking process that reveal the stances of legislators.
“No one has a lot of time to come and ask us our views,” said Clayton, a social media and writing consultant by trade who is known for live-tweeting legislative developments. “I think they like government made easy — they like government made accessible.”
Twice, webcasting proposals introduced by her and Sen. Kay Wolf, R-Prairie Village, have sailed through the Senate, with no opposing votes, only to screech to a halt in Clayton’s own chamber.
Most states offer the public opportunities to watch or listen live to some or all committee meetings remotely. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Kansas is one of just nine that don’t.
Of the 41 that do, most opt for video. Thirty-five also archive recordings so constituents can access them later.
Complaints from some lawmakers that Kansas, still reeling from a nosedive in state revenue, simply can’t afford the same services other states offer may be one reason webcasting proposals have stalled.
Others say legislators fear a chilling effect on debates or the risk that recordings will be tapped for election-season smear ads.
“There’s so much mistrust,” said House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, “and so much mean-spiritedness overshadowing the Legislature.”
But ultimately, he added, lawmakers owe their constituents an open government.
Schoolhouse to Statehouse
Environmental scientist Devin Wilson describes his “aha” moment as the year his youngest son started kindergarten and was, he said, one of 25 students in the class.
“That’s what got me into this,” said Wilson, who grew up in rural Jewell County along the border to Nebraska and now lives in Lenexa. “That’s when I started asking questions.”
Wilson became politically aware and began following Statehouse news closely, concerned that decisions there were undermining the quality of his two sons’ schools.
He follows the stream of Capitol updates that flows through Twitter — messages capped at 140 characters each and written by lawmakers, reporters, lobbyists and others sitting in on proceedings.
But these snippets and the news articles Wilson reads can only provide so much, he said. Committee webcasts would fill in the blanks.
Chapman Rackaway and Michael Smith, political science professors who study Kansas politics, agree.
“I’ve complained for a number of years,” said Rackaway, who teaches at Fort Hays State University, a three-hour drive from the Capitol. “I’d like to see live video streaming and archiving of not only the floor action but committees.”
Kansas does offer online audio of House and Senate floor proceedings, but this media isn’t archived.
Smith, of Emporia State University, said lawmakers may be reluctant to reveal how political sausage is made.
“This is really a push to put windows on the slaughterhouse,” he said.
One room in the Legislature does have a functioning camera capable of live-streaming meetings: a third-floor space known as the Old Supreme Court.
When a controversial school efficiency commission met last year to scrutinize K-12 spending, the panel met here, and Wilson watched remotely.
“Those types of meetings really set the course of action on school legislation,” he said.
Yet the camera is normally off, even though the same room hosted, for example, meetings of the House’s Agriculture and Federal and State Affairs committees during this year’s legislative session. Chairmen can have it turned on, but the Statehouse IT department says it received no requests to do so for regular committee meetings in the 2015 session.
“Adorably anachronistic,” Clayton said as she gazed at the camera during an interview.
The camera is a mobile unit perched on a shelf atop a stack of legal books, placed there to achieve the right angle. Seeing it unused, she says, is motivation.
Clayton’s original idea was for Kansas to launch video webcasts from committee rooms, but when this proposal stalled, she shifted her focus to audio, a less expensive compromise that nevertheless also has floundered.
While the Capitol underwent more than $300 million in renovations over the past decade, infrastructure was installed to allow technology such as audio or video streaming. All committee rooms have conduit — thin pipes — for the necessary ethernet cables, and most have the cables in place.
Installing the cables in the remainder of rooms that lack them would be easy, though this doesn’t mean online streaming would be cheap.
Clayton and Sen. Kay Wolf, another Johnson County Republican who has collaborated with her, have introduced multiple bills, each with varying cost estimates, depending on the medium, the number of cameras needed per room and other factors:
• H.B. 2438 (Clayton, January 2014): Requiring live audio and video webcasts from all committee rooms. The state budget office’s estimate, based on figures provided by the Statehouse IT department, was $885,000 in costs the first year, mostly one-time expenses such as camera and encoder purchases, and $170,000 in the next year. The bill died in committee.
nS.B. 413 and H.B. 2749 (Wolf and Clayton, later in the 2014 session): Identical bills calling for a two-year audio and video pilot focused on four committees. The cost estimate was $178,000 in the first year and about $50,000 annually after that. The Senate passed this 40-0 with amendments to gradually expand the pilot, but the bill died in the House without a hearing or vote.
nS.B. 86 and H.B. 2148 (Wolf and Clayton, January 2015): Identical bills calling for live audio from four committee rooms and online archiving of it. The bills would mandate a review of the pilot after two years, with the goal of expanding to all committee rooms by 2019. Estimated costs were $77,000 for the first year and $34,000 in the year after that. The Senate voted 38-0. The House never voted.
Wilson’s representative is Brett Hildabrand, a conservative Republican and one of 24 lawmakers across the political spectrum who may not see eye to eye with Clayton on all issues, but co-sponsored her 2015 bill.
“I liked the idea of the openness,” Hildabrand said. “It kind of serves a twofold purpose — it educates the public and holds legislators accountable.”
That is similar to the motivation, as described by those who knew them, of two lawmakers, now deceased, who took matters into their own hands more than a decade ago and launched video webcasts of their committees: Rep. Jim Morrison, of Colby, and Sen. Stan Clark, of Oakley.
The pair argued remote access would increase citizen engagement in state government.
“There were a lot of people who followed it,” said Karen Jean Morrison, the representative’s widow. “Farmers, cattle ranchers, irrigators and so forth.”
Morrison says her husband believed lawmakers and lobbyists alike would be more honest if their dealings in Topeka were on camera.
Morrison chaired the House’s health committee, and Clark, the Senate’s utilities committee. They sought help from the Statehouse IT department in carrying out their ideas. Citizens hours away from Topeka could not only watch committee meetings online, they also could drive to their nearest state university campus to testify live via video conferencing.
Clayton describes these efforts, which have since sputtered out, as trailblazing.
Obstacles to passage?
Though none of the five bills introduced in 2014 and 2015 became law, hearings on the matter drew only testimony in favor of the ideas — none against.
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, suggested, as other observers have, that House leadership blocked the bills.
“I’m very open to having more of a live audio and video presence,” King said.
House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, said Republican leaders in the House aren’t setting up obstacles.
“That’s not something that the speaker and I have discussed,” Vickrey said. “We wouldn’t intentionally push back against the bill.”
He noted bills face timing hurdles because of the volume of proposals that come before the House.
“We’re very conscious of being a public forum,” he said. “Everything we do is for the purpose of serving our constituents and the public, and anything that enhances that we’ll sure take a look at.”
House Speaker Ray Merrick’s office declined repeated requests for an interview on transparency matters.
Clayton has heard complaints that webcasting would be too expensive, but is convinced the House would pass an audio-streaming initiative if it reached a floor vote.
“I think you can tell the values of a legislature by what they decide to run and debate,” she said. “It would be a strong indicator that the Transparency Act was not important enough for House leadership to run.”
A bill that passed the Legislature this year to ban an abortion procedure came with an estimated price tag of $50,000 for its first year and up to $200,000 a year each for 2016 and 2017 in anticipation of hiring lawyers for a court battle over the legislation’s constitutionality.
The Legislature also earmarked $3 million for an outside firm to scrutinize state spending. Legislation to fund private school tuition through corporate tax credits, meanwhile — approved last year and expanded this year — came with a $10 million maximum annual cap.
Some Kansas politicians have become accustomed to cameras.
U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a former state representative and state senator, has spent six years in the U.S. Capitol, where C-SPAN records a wide range of proceedings.
Tom Brandt, her communications director in D.C., says Jenkins sees C-SPAN as a public good, even if it brings challenges.
“While more cameras undoubtedly lead to more grandstanding,” he wrote in an email, “in general Congresswoman Jenkins feels the additional public access gained from audio and video streaming in Congress is a net positive.”
He added, though, that the scale of interest in Kansas proceedings is different and Jenkins thinks “the costs and associated tradeoffs of that decision are best made by the state legislature.”
Clayton first became interested in webcasting legislative committee meetings when she attended a Women in Government Conference in 2013 and learned this service was common outside Kansas.
As a freshman lawmaker that year, she hadn’t yet heard much about Morrison and Clark’s previous efforts.
With an increasing number of people attending committee meetings with video and Twitter-capable smartphones in hand, Clayton says, lawmakers can’t shut out the public eye. Instead, they should welcome it.
“We should be the ones that are pushing that out to the people,” she said. “Government should always be as accessible as it possibly can.”