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Hiding in plain sight

I visited the state Capitol on Thursday. It was Kansas Press Association legislative day, and I was there with other journalists to press the cause of open, transparent government.

Ever the shutterbug, I was merrily snapping pictures from the front row of the gallery overlooking the House floor when a uniformed attendant approached me.

No pictures of the electronic voting boards when a vote was being recorded, he told me. From that point forward, he watched me like a hawk.

Telling a journalist to not take a picture of a legislative voting board in open session is like putting a plate of chocolate cupcakes in front of a preschooler and telling him he can’t have one. I kept my tantrum to myself, but tantrum I did, and resolved to find out why such a restriction on transparency exists.

It turns out that both the House and Senate don’t keep records for certain votes of how individual legislators weighed in, and they don’t want anyone else to either.

With individual electronic voting a mere button push away, both chambers instead cling to an archaic system of voice votes for nearly everything other than the final vote on a bill. Only if it’s too close to call between the shouted “ayes” and the bellowed “nays” will they resort to the electronic system, where their votes aren’t hidden midst the din.

Since they’re not individually accountable for their votes during a shouting match, they believe they shouldn’t be individually accountable when the electronic system has to be used to sort it all out. You can’t take a picture of a shout, so you can’t take a picture of the individual tally of a shout. Ridiculous.

So what’s the big deal?

The shout of your legislator is your shout. You elected and pay them to represent your voice in Topeka. How do you know they’re really doing so? How do you know if they deserve your vote the next time around?

Recording little more than individual final votes conceals all of the work that goes on before the moments those buttons are pushed or roll is called. Did your legislator fight against a bill all the way through and then cave at the last minute in an act of political expediency? You can’t know that from a final vote.

But voice votes and banning pictures are par for the course for a legislature dubbed “most anonymous in nation” in an extensive analysis of state legislatures by the Topeka Capital Journal last year.

Do you want to know which legislator proposed a particular bill? Good luck finding out. Nine out of 10 bills in Kansas don’t list the name of the legislators who proposed them. Most are “sponsored” by standing committees. The legislator who introduces the bill in committee may not even be the author; they’re simply doing the author a favor.

How did your legislator vote in their committees? Who knows? Votes are typically recorded as “passed” or “failed” without including numbers for and against, let alone how individuals voted. A legislator may ask to have their individual vote recorded in the minutes, but seldom does that happen.

Bills change or get lumped together along the way. The massive final state budget bill passed last year began as a proposal to give game wardens an option to not write tickets for misdemeanors. Imagine trying to follow the convoluted course of that one, let alone how your legislator contributed to or detracted from it.

It’s primarily through the efforts of diligent journalists who corner legislators in hallways, who attend committee meetings, and who scour tons of records that we know what we do about what’s going on in Topeka. We’re glad for the work, but it should not have to be this way. It’s not in 49 other states.

It’s this sort of environment that set the stage for far-right conservatives to wreak havoc with little accountability on everything from social services and education to taxes. It’s what allowed most of them to sail through elections and return for more of the same.

It’s not a pretty picture, and it’s one they’d rather we not take. However, if you’re concerned about the future, and you should be, then take a good look.

If you don’t like what you see, write your legislators and tell them so. However, be sure to sign your letter; you see, they don’t pay attention to anonymous ones. Go figure.

— david colburn

Last modified Feb. 10, 2016

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