Kansas legislators are still allowed to take unrecorded votes on legislation in committee and as the House or Senate debate bills despite an ongoing push for greater openness in state government.
The Republican-controlled House approved new rules Wednesday for 2019 and 2020 that include a few changes that leaders in both parties said would promote transparency. The GOP-dominated Senate adopted its rules in 2017 and isn’t set to review them again until 2021.
Both sets of rules maintain a long-standing practice of allowing committees to take unrecorded votes on bills, leaving no record of how members vote most of the time. Both chambers also can take unrecorded votes on amendments to bills and on advancing them to final action, though final votes are always recorded.
The House’s vote on its rules Wednesday was 104-15, with all “no” votes coming from Democrats who did not think the rules truly promote openness. The lack of a requirement for recorded committee votes was a key issue.
“Our constituents are entitled to know how we vote on the substantive matters that come before the committee,” said Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat who opposed the rules.
Interest in transparency in state government intensified last year after The Kansas City Star published a series of stories and called Kansas “one of the most secretive state governments in the nation.” But lawmakers’ record on tackling such issues was mixed and new laws focused on the release of police body camera footage and information about the deaths of abused children.
House rules continue to protect members’ ability to take an unrecorded vote even when a count is taken on its electronic tally boards because the outcome of a voice vote isn’t clear. House rules bar anyone from taking photos or video of a board.
House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, noted that committees and the full House and Senate audio-stream meetings live and the recordings are accessible later.
“That’s about as transparent as you can get,” Hawkins said.
House Speaker Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican and chairman of the chamber’s rules committee, said committees don’t produce the final version of bills but only make recommendations. Also, he said, taking voice votes in House committees could be time consuming, because some have as many as 23 members.
Even on unrecorded votes, committee members can ask to have their personal votes recorded in the meeting’s minutes.
And House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said the new House rules promote openness by requiring disclosure of more information about who asks committees to sponsor legislation and a better paper trail when bills are rewritten completely.
“To me, that’s big progress,” Sawyer said.
But Carmichael dismissed the changes as “window-dressing.”
“If we take baby steps like this, in 50 years, we may have the transparency we need today,” added Rep. Jim Ward, another Wichita Democrat.