By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — With the introduction of a single bill, the Kansas Legislature this week took a monumental first step on the road to real government transparency in the digital age.
Overland Park Republican state Rep. Stephanie Clayton, along with 13 other co-sponsors, including three Democrats, filed the aptly-named “Transparency and Accountability Act” Thursday morning. The Capitol building is wired and ready for the rollout of live, online video in every chamber and committee room. All that’s missing are the cameras and the political will to turn them on.
Clayton’s bill would solve both matters in one fell swoop.
“It’s really a sad state of affairs that Kansas isn’t doing this, especially when we are wired to do it. It is something we can definitely achieve,” Clayton said.
In addition to support from Democratic state Reps. Brandon Whipple of Wichita, Emily Perry of Mission and House Minority Whip Julie Menghini of Pittsburg, the legislation has garnered support from a range of Republicans from across the conservative political spectrum.
“You’ve got moderates and old-fashioned conservatives and tea party conservatives that are supporting this,” Clayton told Kansas Watchdog. “This is not a faction-based bill. Transparency is for everyone, regardless of what your ideology is.”
As it stands right now, Kansas’ is one of the few state legislatures that have failed to offer some form of online video to the public. Currently, the Sunflower State only provides for live audio streams from the Senate and House chambers that, while better than nothing, is hardly ideal. Menghini said such a technological shift would be advantageous for thousands of rural Kansans, including those in her own community.
“Being nearly three hours away from Topeka, it is burdensome for my constituents to view the process in person,” Menghini said. “I think in those instances, far removed areas of the state are especially vulnerable to less-responsive legislators who only say what you want to hear, and not necessarily the whole truth.”
Clayton said the legislation has been at the forefront of her mind since first stepping foot into the Capitol as a representative last year. The trick, she said, was offering transparent government without breaking the bank. She initially drafted a pie-in-the-sky version of the bill, which included full archiving and closed captioning of every meeting, but then she said she realized such amenities could launch the project out of the Legislature’s price range.
“Transparency is wonderful, but you and I both know transparency is expensive,” she said. “Instead of the Cadillac version of live streaming video, this is the Schwinn 10-speed.”
Assuming Clayton’s bill is passed in its current form, it would require all public meetings be broadcast live over the Internet. While interested individuals still would need to tune-in at the appropriate time, it’s still more feasible for most than making the trek to Topeka. Lawmakers could only turn off the cameras with a two-thirds vote from the respective body or committee.
But while the legislation has been a long time coming, the journey is far from over.
As of Friday morning the bill had been referred to the Appropriations Committee and will have to pass muster there before it can make it to the House. Menghini couldn’t gauge the level of support from other legislative leaders, but said “the potential for ‘mischief’ is always present when you introduce legislation.”
But Clayton said she has high hopes.
“I think that the end result is that it goes pretty far,” she said. “I would hope that it goes all the way into law, I’m probably at this point about 80 percent optimistic that it becomes law this session. But if it does not, I will obviously be trying again.”
Clayton added that she has been speaking with state Sen. Kay Wolf, R-Prairie Village, about introducing an identical bill in the Senate.
“It’s one thing to introduce a bill, I think a lot of times legislators will introduce a bill to make themselves look good and don’t follow up on the work,” Clayton added. “This is something I will aggressively pursue all the way to the end.”
Related: KS Judiciary outpaces Legislature in technological transparency
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Related: Camera shy: KS legislators sidestep transparency
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