Guest column: Some elected officials seem to be democracy’s own worst enemy

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By Melissa Stiehler

The Kansas Legislature is broken, and the fault lies with key elected members. There is no clearer example than what happened in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee meeting March 29.
It took five long years for Wyandotte County residents to win passage of the Safe and Welcoming Act by the unified government. The ordinance that would help undocumented residents and their documented loved ones contact the police when they are victims of crime without the fear of deportation and provide municipal IDs to residents who don’t have access to other photo identification. They worked with their local government officials including police and many other stakeholders to ensure this ordinance was the best fit for their community.
But after five short minutes of what could hardly be called debate, the Senate committee voted to ban local governments from creating local solutions to strengthen the relationship between residents and local police. When asked, only two legislators admitted they had even read the ordinance they were voting to ban.
As infuriating as it is that our Legislature would violate home rule and preempt the democratic wishes of local communities, this isn’t really a story about banning safe and welcoming policies in Kansas, or even an election year political stunt by Kansas Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt.
It’s a story about how our elected officials blatantly disregard the will of the people of Kansas and undermine the democratic process — and why it’s our duty as citizens to hold them accountable.
On Monday, March 28, Senate leadership called on the Federal and State Affairs Committee to hold a hearing on the Safe and Welcoming ban the following day at 8:30 a.m., giving the public less than 24 hours to be notified and provide testimony at the hearing. A number of opponents to this ordinance, including myself, submitted testimony before the hearing, and communicated with the committee assistant about our intention to give virtual testimony.
However, we were never added to the committee agenda and thus were denied the ability to testify. This may not seem like a major affront to democracy, but these committee hearings are the only guaranteed time that we the people can be publicly on the record about laws passed in Topeka.
Any time I’ve asked an elected official how we can make a difference in the Legislature, he or she tells me to submit testimony. It is a fundamental part of the democratic process.
As soon as Sen. Rob Olson, the committee chairman, announced that he had no more testimony, I messaged the committee assistant that I was still waiting to testify. He assured me that my testimony would be converted to written testimony, and the committee moved on to another bill.
A few minutes later, the committee returned to the preemption bill and despite a motion from Sen. Cindy Holscher to table the bill so that those of us who had been left out of the committee hearing would have a chance to speak, the committee moved forward with passing it out of the committee on a party-line vote.
In the House committee, where there was a little more notice of the hearing, the opponents far outweighed the proponents. In oral testimony it was 17 opponents to 4 proponents (all but one an elected official), and in written testimony there were two in favor of the bill and 60 opposed, but as in the Senate committee, it’s doubtful that the majority paid any heed to the heartfelt pleas not to pass this bill from so many citizens of Kansas, including representatives of two counties and three cities.
Other than Schmidt, only one person gave testimony to the Senate committee in support of this bill. By my estimate, 22 people submitted opposition testimony with less than 24 hours notice. My count is incomplete because even now, there is still opposition testimony missing from the legislative website. Senate President Ty Masterson then called this bill up for a vote, which the Senate passed without the ability to see the full public opposition.
When a friend and colleague, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union political and community outreach director Monica Vargas-Huertas, reached out to the Senate committee and its assistant about why we weren’t allowed to testify, she was met with shocking disdain. She was told Olson and his assistant couldn’t be expected to do “special things” for voters who were trying to testify with “special and last minute treatment,” claiming our excuses are unlimited for why we want to be exceptions for the rules.
The problem with this explanation is it was at Senate leadership’s request that the rules were broken, that the committee hearing was scheduled with hardly any notice, that the vote was taken immediately after debate, that the full Senate worked the bill before hearing from those of us who had been silenced. I know this because Olson told me in an email explanation later.
During the Senate debate, it was said that any criticism of the broken process was a criticism of the legislative staffers who were working hard and doing their best. But the problem isn’t the overworked committee assistant, it’s legislative leadership. The outcome of this committee hearing was predetermined, so they didn’t care to seek the advice and hear the impact on the people of Kansas. Schmidt’s anti-immigrant, anti-voter bill was going to pass, come hell or high water.
This is unfortunately not unusual in Masterson’s Senate.
Practices that have historically only been used in cases of emergency, such as suspending the rules to immediately vote on a bill or to hold a public hearing with little to no notice to the public, have become commonplace.
The practice of “gut and go” means that both chambers don’t even need to hold debate or vote on the same bill before they pass it and send it to the governor’s desk. The week ending April 1 was conference committee week, when legislators are supposed to reconcile their differences between bill versions passed in each chamber. It is now used as a time for legislators handpicked by leadership to advocate for their pet issues to be added into bills for the first time, with no hearing or floor debate at all.
While I was expressing how frustrated I was with this process, with how little I felt my work opposing this bill mattered, a friend and fellow opponent of the legislation made the point that the Legislature is so corrupt and dysfunctional it makes you wonder why you’re even there.
That answer is an easy one: The only way to protect our democracy is to fight for it. Democracy is more than just casting a ballot. It’s the process of debate, of public hearings, of our elected officials working together to find consensus. We must hold them accountable not just for the votes they take, but for their responsibility to protect the democratic institutions they’ve been elected to uphold. If they refuse to listen to us, we must find a way to speak louder, by organizing our communities to speak up, fight back and take collective action.
We will win with strength in numbers.
And because Olson didn’t allow me to say it during the hearing, let me say it now: HB2717 is a terrible bill. Enacting this law would be government overreach, banning a policy that helps make our cities safer and our communities healthier. This bill is fundamentally anti-democratic, both in process and in result. The hearing was scheduled with hardly any notice, leaving many engaged Kansans out of the legislative process and stifling public input in a law debated in what is supposedly the people’s house.
The passing of Wyandotte’s ordinance wasn’t the first time a city in Kansas did so, only the most recent. The urgency assigned to this legislation isn’t necessary, especially considering similar ordinances have been in place for years without issue.
Emergency action on legislation should be reserved for actual emergencies, not political stunts. This process has become so rushed that an amendment to this bill was so sloppily written that it’s become legislation that could disenfranchise many Kansas citizens who rely on local government IDs to vote, such as veterans who use the Sedgwick County Veterans Discount Card, or those in assisted care facilities who don’t drive or receive government assistance, such as the elderly or people with disabilities.
Many local governments work with their residents to go above and beyond in helping ensure that Kansans can vote. Locally issued identification cards are an important part of that assistance. This does not make for safer elections either, considering that many forms of government-issued photo IDs do not guarantee proof of citizenship.
In fact, a law requiring proof of citizenship to vote in Kansas just cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in a resulting lawsuit over this unconstitutional legislation. Please do not repeat the mistakes of years past by passing more legislation that doesn’t make our elections safer, just more difficult for us to participate in.
I strongly encourage Gov. Laura Kelly to recognize that this bill was brought to her desk with disregard to democratic values and the will of the people of Kansas, and I urge her to veto it to right these wrongs.
Editor’s note: Melissa Stiehler is the advocacy director of Loud Light Action, a Kansas-based advocacy organization focused on voting rights, government transparency and increasing civic engagement.
This editorial was first published April 11 on the Kansas Reflector website.