Kansas House wrong to let transparency legislation die

SHATTERED TRANSPARENCY: While legislation to start a pilot program for online video passed unanimously in the Senate in early April, the bill has died after passing to the House, where it likely will not receive a hearing before lawmakers end the 2014 legislative session.

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — Kansans watched legislative transparency die a quick, uneventful death Wednesday morning.

Senate Bill 413 and its promise of open government are probably all but gone.

For this legislative session, at least.

For those unfamiliar with the bill, it would have enacted an unprecedented level of transparency under the Capitol dome by streaming video of committee meetings online for the voting public to see — as they rightfully should. A four-room pilot program would have launched next year, with an easy path to expand cameras to every legislative meeting room by 2018.

But thanks to dithering by the House, to get the ball rolling we’ll have to wait until at least next year, though hopefully not longer.

Of course, lawmakers have their set of excuses at the ready. Wichita Republican Rep. Steve Brunk quipped that time had simply run out. House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, lamented the state simply couldn’t swallow the estimated $180,000 startup cost after a disappointing revenue report earlier in the week.

But pay no attention to the fact the legislation received unanimous support in the Senate just before lawmakers left for spring break, or that as chair of the Federal and State Affairs committee, Brunk probably could have found a way to hold a hearing if he really wanted to. Never mind that Kansas Policy Institute president Dave Trabert presented lawmakers with a relatively painless and simple way to fund not only the pilot program but also the full-blown vision of Capitol transparency.

Ultimately I’m a realist. It’s likely there are some grains of truth to lawmaker’s excuses as to why transparency can’t happen now, though I can’t help but find them a little feeble. And it’s hard not to when the skepticism comes from one of their own.

“Honestly, I don’t really think the House was very excited about that bill,” Sen. Kay Wolf, R-Prairie Village, said of legislation identical to SB 413 introduced in the House by Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park. “I don’t think there was the support behind it that there was in the Senate.”

Wolf is convinced the transparency act would pull at least 63 votes to pass if it could just make it to the House floor; the hard part is just getting it there. In a final effort to make that happen, Wolf said she’ll try to include the bill’s language through a potential conference committee on related legislation, Sen. Jacob LaTurner’s Senate Bill 10, which focuses on controlling the cost of open records. We’ll see whether or not this comes to fruition before time runs out.

It’s worth noting that Wolf was initially reluctant to tell me which legislation she hoped to use as a vehicle for the transparency bill, out of concern revealing her strategy would make it easier for the House to block the plan of action.

Still more opposition has come from lawmakers who suggest video is a luxury, and that similar levels of transparency could be accomplished on the cheap with audio-only feeds. While they’re correct on the cost argument, that’s about all they’re right about. I’ve listened to the audio feeds coming out of the House and Senate, and I can confidently say they don’t provide the full picture. The only reason I’m able to follow along with any degree of coherency is because I’m on the inside; I know the players and have an idea of what’s happening and what to expect.

The average Kansan would tune in and struggle to decipher who’s who, based on voice alone.

Furthermore, humans are visual creatures, and our communications aren’t limited solely to audio. Body language plays a massive role in contextualizing what we say and how it’s interpreted. A subtle facial expression often conveys the difference between a serious statement or a jovial quip. Elected officials are concerned about their recorded words being taken out of context, and an audio-only feed would be a prime way to do just that.

The name of the game, though, is persistence, and Wolf and Clayton have pledged to keep pushing the matter until it becomes law. I’ll be cheering them the whole way.

I’ll leave you with a final thought.

Kansas is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t offer some kind of transparency like this and, quite frankly, it’s embarrassing we haven’t made this happen sooner. The rural roots and small town life which lawmakers often tout are simultaneously the exact reasons for implementation of this bill. It’s not reasonable to expect more than half of the state’s population to drive at least an hour — if not more — to take part in the governance of their state.

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter at @muckraker62. Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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