For Kansas state Rep. Jim Ward, the last three years in Topeka have been painful ones.
“I have seen a change in Kansas state government, with less transparency and little willingness of the legislature to restrain the governor or even question the actions of state agencies,” said Ward, a Democrat whose party is far outnumbered by Republicans in the state Capitol.
But if lawmakers are partly to blame, Gov. Sam Brownback is the primary cause, Ward said.
“No other governor I served under ever had super majorities in both houses,” said Ward, who’s spent a total of 15 years in the legislature. “That puts more responsibility on the governor to maintain transparency and protect the democratic process, not less.”
Ward’s sentiments are reflected in rankings of transparency and accountability in state government by the latest State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. Overall, Kansas fell from the top 10 states, where it stood in the first State Integrity rankings in 2012 with a score of 75 and a grade of C, to the bottom 10 with a score of 59 – an F. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the project and methodology.
Not so open records
Kansas has open records and meetings laws that are intended to be applied liberally to all levels of government in the state, but they were enacted long before the advent of cell phones and email and even the Republican attorney general has said the law is outdated.
In January, The Wichita Eagle reported that the state’s budget director had used a private email account to communicate with lobbyists about the proposed state budget. Brownback later acknowledged that he had been using a private cell phone and email account to conduct public business since his days as a U.S. senator. Legislation that would have made those communications subject to the open records law went nowhere during the 2015 legislative session.
Newspapers and citizens requesting information from public and publicly-funded entities sometimes have been forced to wait long periods for responses, been told the information could only be provided for a considerable charge or have simply had their requests rejected. In 2014, for instance, a student group at the University of Kansas was charged $1,800 by the university to fulfill an open records request.
The state gives the attorney general and local district attorneys the power to enforce those laws by taking violators to local courts, which can assess civil fines of up to $500 per offense. But despite dozens of complaints made to the attorney general and district attorneys regarding alleged violations of the open records and meetings laws, those officials rarely seek out any civil penalties.
Less than aggressive enforcement
Kansas’ chief election officer, the secretary of state, is an elected position, and the top staffers are political appointees.
Formerly, the secretary of state’s election-related duties were mostly limited to administering the vote. But this year, the state legislature gave the secretary of state power to prosecute cases of alleged voter fraud, which some fear will keep certain segments of the population from voting amid the threat of legal action.
The state’s Governmental Ethics Commission monitors and enforces state campaign finance laws. Since 2013, when the commission was criticized by some Republicans for allegedly targeting conservatives, it has not levied a fine greater than $500, which is far lower than previous fines and a small fraction of the allowable amount.
Shaking up civil service
Several of Brownback’s political allies have landed state jobs or contracts. Former campaign spokesman John Milburn left for a similar job at the Department of Administration, while two former campaign officials became deputy executive director of the Kansas Lottery and the governor’s director of appointments. In 2013, the Kansas Department for Children and Families awarded a contract to a Mississippi company whose CEO had donated the maximum allowable amount to Brownback’s campaign. That came two years after one of the firm’s employees was hired to head the state’s child support enforcement division.
Three former aides to Brownback, including his former chief of staff, set up a lobbying firm that worked on behalf of insurance companies involved in the privatization of Kansas’ Medicaid system.
“There’s a lot of power grabbing going on,” said state Sen. Anthony Hensley, the Senate Democratic leader, adding that below the surface, “there’s corruption, too.”
Earlier this year, Brownback signed legislation directing that new state government hires not be covered by civil service job protection, a change expected to reduce the size of the civil service system. Current employees will be allowed to voluntarily move into non-civil service jobs.
“I do think the quality of government has suffered tremendously over the past couple of years,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “Talented, midlevel bureaucrats have been forced out. The civil service protection has been cut back dramatically.”
Brownback also has used executive orders to make a couple of controversial changes in state personnel policy, including repealing a ban on discrimination against state employees because of their sexual orientation.
For decades, judges on the state’s highest two courts – the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals – were nominated by the governor after first being vetted by a commission, of which the majority of members were attorneys elected by their peers. But in 2013, Republican leaders passed a law that allows the governor to make appointments to the Court of Appeals from his own pool of candidates, subject only to confirmation by the Senate. After that change, Brownback’s first appointment to the Court of Appeals was his chief counsel, who had previously been passed over by the nominating commission.
In 2014, the legislature helped Brownback strip the Supreme Court of its power to appoint chief judges for the local district courts, giving that authority to local judges instead. This year, the legislature passed a bill stating that if a state court strikes down that 2014 law, the judiciary will lose its funding.
“The threat of using budgetary processes to cut the authority of the courts… that’s just destroying any sane notion of balance of power,” said Davis Merritt, a columnist and former editor of the Eagle, the state’s largest newspaper.
The Kansas Legislature – as well as its key budget committees, the Senate Ways and Means Committee and the House Appropriations Committee – are dominated by Republicans by nearly a 4-1 margin. In 2012, lawmakers cut income taxes across the board at Brownback’s request. This year, as state tax collections continued to fall below projections, lawmakers raised the state sales tax, which critics say has a greater impact on low-wage earners and their families, rather than rescind the severe cuts.
Brownback also won legislative approval this year for a new school finance plan based on “block grants” to school districts, an approach that was immediately challenged as harmful to programs that help poor and minority students. A court tossed Brownback’s funding plan this summer, but the attorney general’s office has filed motion that it will appeal the decision.
“That was done behind closed doors with little or public input, no public hearings,” Ward said, speaking of school finance plan.
Kansas law calls for the state to use competitive bids for goods and services. However, the director of purchasing is given wide latitude in determining when to use sole-sourcing instead. Persons convicted of bribery or other offenses can be barred from participating in state bids for three years, but the decision of whether to do so is left to the discretion of the secretary of administration. These and other policies led Kansas to earn a 49 in the category of procurement, the second worst score in the nation. Despite the weak laws, however, there have not been any procurement-related scandals over the past three years.
Another area of state government where Kansas scored low was internal auditing, for which it came dead last among states. Performance audits of state programs and agencies are performed by the office of the Legislative Post Auditor. By law, the agency can undertake only those audits that are approved by a legislative committee. Since 2013, the committee has refused to authorize several audits, including one on the cost of carrying out the death penalty and another on how well the state’s foster care system is protecting children.
“We’ve had two children killed while in state custody,” Ward said.