Kansas GOP senators defend closed caucus meetings

KSN News (file)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republicans in the Kansas Senate ensured Wednesday that they’ll still be able to hold occasional closed meetings to hash out strategy and air gripes, even when most of the chamber’s members are present.

GOP senators used their supermajority to block a Democratic proposal to require all legislative party caucus meetings to be open to the public. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, offered the measure as an amendment to a bill limiting the fees state and local agencies can charge when people request public records.

The Senate voted 30-8 against Hensley’s amendment. All of the no votes came from Republicans, and only one GOP senator, Carolyn McGinn of Sedgwick, broke ranks to support it.

“This system works well,” said Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Hutchinson Republican. “It’s a reasonable approach for us to limit our caucuses in some cases so that there’s not press availability.”

Senators afterward gave first-round approval to the records bill on a voice vote, advancing it to final action, scheduled for Thursday, when approval would send the legislation to the House. The measure requires simple records requests to be fulfilled without charges and limits what agencies can charge for copes and staff time.

Hensley’s proposal would have revised the Kansas Open Meetings Act to block Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate from closing daily caucus meetings. They discuss measures on each chamber’s debate calendar but also their grievances or strategy but don’t take official votes on proposals.

The Open Meetings Act generally requires government boards, councils and commissions to discuss their business in public meetings but allows lawmakers to close their caucuses.

Legislators in practice rarely close the meetings, and Democrats have made a point of declaring theirs open. Senate Republicans have had two highly publicized closed caucuses in the past decade — one at the end of the Legislature’s 2004 session to discuss crucial school funding legislation and another in March 2013 to discuss major tax proposals. Reporters protested both times.

Democrats noted that Republicans’ 32-8 majority in the Senate would allow them to settle issues in closed caucuses, then push measures through the chamber with public votes but no debate.

“We should practice what we preach,” Hensley said. “We believe in transparency in government and open meetings. I believe party caucuses should always be open.”

But Bruce said closed meetings are occasionally helpful for frank discussions about strategy or individual senators’ grievances, when the presence of reporters could have “a chilling effect.”

“The majority party has other obligations that the minority party does not have,” Bruce said. “In addition to making decisions on the floor, we also have to run the Senate, and we have to run the House, and we have to coordinate those activities with our majority peers.”

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