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Time to focus cameras on Kansas Legislature

By   /   April 15, 2014  /   No Comments

Part 7 of 8 in the series Kansas Online Video

TUNE IN: Kansas lawmakers opposed to online video of public meetings should question their own commitment to their constituents.

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — Excuse me while I put on my hipster glasses for a few paragraphs.

While it’s great to see editorial boards and media pundits across Kansas stand up and shout for increased transparency for Kansas government and the legislative process, I was writing about the need for cameras in the state Capitol before it was cool.

It was a little more than a year ago that I cranked out my first story on the subject. It started out as something pretty mundane, a trip to Topeka and a hearing in the Capitol’s Old Supreme Court Room. I found myself glancing at the antiquated camera tucked away in a corner of the historic space, making a mental note of its lack of use.

The camera was there. The switch could have been flipped. Nobody cared enough to do it.

Way back in March 2013, there wasn’t much buzz around the Capitol for that type of transparency. Aside from my initial report and a few snarky, well-pointed tweets from lobbyist Rob Mealy, no one was talking about it.

How things have changed.

So far, the 2014 Kansas Legislative session has offered the tantalizing possibility for a massive leap forward in transparency. State Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, got the ball rolling with a grand vision laid out in House Bill 2438, which would have broadcast online every public meeting in the Capitol.

State Sen. Kay Wolf, R-Prairie Village, added more fuel to the fire with a pared-down version in Senate Bill 413 which, while offering a limited initial roll out, undoubtedly snagged a wider-range of support because of its smaller fiscal tag.

Wolf’s bill shot through the Senate like a rocket just before the Legislature left for spring break. That in itself is fantastic news, but the fight is far from over.

Kent Cornish, president and executive director of the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, told me last week that he noticed a striking difference in dialogue on this issue between the state’s two legislative bodies. The Senate, he said, zoned-in on how to accomplish the feat of putting cameras in committee rooms. House lawmakers, on the other hand, seemed to care more about why it’s needed in the first place.

“That was kind of an indication, there are just some people that would rather not be seen and would rather not have people know what happens up there,” Cornish said, referencing a House Appropriations committee meeting discussing Clayton’s original bill earlier in the session.

Let me be clear on one thing: There is absolutely no good reason to not do this.

Practically half the population of the state lives more than an hour from Topeka, and the prospect of traveling to the Capitol to weigh-in on legislative matters gets increasingly more laughable the farther west you go.

The very notion of asking a voter in Liberal to make the more than five-hour drive, one way, to hear committee matters in person is nothing short of ridiculous.

Lawmakers who question the value of broadcasting legislative activities would do well to examine their own commitment to their constituents. These meetings already are open to the public. Video cameras simply make them easier to attend for millions of Kansans across the state.

While transparency isn’t cheap – Wolf’s bill is estimated at $178,000, though the cost is up for debate — it should be considered an investment more than an expense.

If you’re still not convinced, consider this: During the renovation of the Capitol, Kansas spent almost $300,000 on a chandelier to hang under the dome.

If Kansas is willing to spend that much for ornate lighting, then turning a spotlight on how lawmakers make their unique brand of political sausage should be a no-brainer.

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter at @muckraker62. Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!

Part of 8 in the series Kansas Online Video

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Travis Perry is an investigative reporter covering news and politics for Watchdog.org's Kansas bureau. Before joining the organization, Travis graduated cum laude from Washburn University and cut his teeth as news editor for the Osawatomie Graphic, where he received numerous awards from the Kansas Press Association.

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