Simple tasks for Kansas Legislature

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: There are things simple and noncontroversial that the Kansas Legislature should do in its upcoming session. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally broadcast January 3, 2016.

It isn’t very long before the Kansas Legislature starts its 2016 session. Monday January eleventh is the first day. I’d like to take a look at a few issues the legislature will have to deal with, and some that it should.

But first, there is one thing that receives a lot of attention, but has little real importance. That is the length of the legislative session. Kansas law prescribes a session of 90 days. Last year the session lasted 113 days, or 114 days if we count the largely ceremonial final day. Everyone talked about the record-breaking long session. Recently, Senate President Susan Wagle told the Wichita Pachyderm Club that she would like to see the session be over in 75 days. I think the length of the session is one of the least important things we should worry about. Now, it costs about $50,000 per day to run the legislature. We should not spend that money needlessly. But I think it is more important to do things right, and to do the right things, than to have a short legislative session. Year after year legislators tell us that there was not time to do things that some people considered to be very important. Wait until next year, they say. But if legislative leaders say that we can have a 75 day session, well, I think it’s more important to have a 90 day session and accomplish some things that have been put off.

But even before this, it is important that the legislature do a few things that are non-partisan in nature and cost very little. One is letting Kansans know more about the proceedings of the legislature. Currently, audio of sessions of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are broadcast on the internet. That’s good. But the broadcasts are live only. There is no archive of recordings. Citizens must listen live, in real time, or figure out some way to record the audio, which isn’t real easy to do.

There is a desire by some for live video of the legislature, which would be great. Even better is archived video, where a person doesn’t have to watch live. But these options are expensive. The expenditure would be worthwhile, but there doesn’t seem to be much desire to spend on this. Audio, however, provides almost all the benefit of video. And it’s cheap. For eight dollars per month the legislature could make audio recordings of its proceedings available to listen to at any time.

That’s right. For eight dollars per month at least one podcast hosting company offers an unlimited plan. Unlimited storage, and unlimited bandwidth. That’s just what is needed. (For $79 per month the same company offers a plan geared towards business, with features like multiple administrative users. That is probably more appropriate for the Legislature. But the eight dollar plan would work, too.) Since the audio of the proceedings is broadcast on the internet, it must pass through a computer somewhere. That computer could also be recording the audio. Once recorded, the process of uploading the audio to the podcast host is a trivial procedure. The recording needs no editing. (In fact, any editing other than cutting away silence before the start and after the end of the session must be disallowed.)

But there’s a problem. Neither Kansas legislative chamber records their proceedings, according to responses from the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House when I asked for a recording.

Making audio archives or podcasts of legislative sessions would be so simple. It is almost without cost. It would have great benefit. Interns could do the work, and it would be good experience for them. But the Kansas Legislature doesn’t do this, and it doesn’t appear that legislative leaders want to make recordings available. We need to ask legislative leaders to make this happen. All that is required is the desire to make the legislature more easily and readily available to Kansans.

A related matter is the availability of testimony in the Kansas Legislature. In particular, the written testimony and informational presentations provided to committees would be of interest and value to citizens. Most committees — perhaps all — require conferees to supply a pdf or Microsoft Word version of their testimony in advance of the hearing. These electronic documents could be placed online before the committee hearing. Then, anyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone could have these documents available to them.

On the Kansas Legislature website, each committee has its own page. On these committee pages there are links for “Committee Agenda,” “Committee Minutes,” and “Testimony.” But in most cases there is no data behind these links. In February I investigated and found that only about one-third of standing committees in the Kansas Legislature were providing written testimony online.

Since February, several committees have used the commercial file-sharing service Dropbox to make testimony and documents available to everyone. This is a reasonable way to accomplish an important goal. Publishing testimony online would be an easy matter to accomplish and would be a great help to those following the legislature. It would cost very little or nothing. This should be a non-partisan issue.

Another thing we need are reforms to the Kansas Open Records Act. An important issue is non-profit corporations that are funded solely or primarily by government. In Wichita, an example is the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. It claims it is exempt from the open records act because it is not a governmental agency. This is despite being almost totally funded by tax revenue. Another example is Visit Wichita, our convention and tourism bureau. In the past I’ve asked these agencies for spending records. They declined, claiming that they are not public agencies. In Kansas, when citizens feel they have a problem with the records law, the local district attorney is one option available to seek a remedy. I think I’ve told you what happened in my case. The Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office sided with the agencies, agreeing with their contention that they are not public agencies.

The preamble to the Kansas Open Records Act reads: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.” Despite that expansive language, the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office decided that these agencies, despite being funded 90 percent or more by public tax funds, are nonetheless exempt from this law.

Now, this year the legislature granted the Attorney General more power to investigate violations of the records act. So I asked the Attorney General’s office for help. All that office did was to consult the Sedgwick County District Attorney and rely on its ruling. So nothing seems to have changed, and millions of dollars of taxpayer funds are being spent in secrecy.

Then, there is the problem of fees. A few weeks ago I told you how I had to pay $24 dollars to the City of Wichita for spending records that many governmental agencies make available at no charge. I called the city’s attention to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, which allows for fee waivers in some circumstances: “… fee waivers are limited to situations in which a requester can show that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations and activities of the government.” That’s what I was trying to do.

The city responded that the Kansas Open Records Act has no provision for the waiver of fees. That’s true. But agencies are not required by the act to charge for records. Kansas should have a provision for fee waivers as does the federal government.

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