By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers defeated two proposals Thursday to limit out of state travel for legislators and the secretary of state.
The state House of Representatives defeated amendments to the proposed state budget from Rep. Brett Parker (D-Overland Park) that would have prohibited state legislators and legislative staff from using state funds to attend national legislative conferences, and one that would cut the out-of-state travel budget for Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R). Parker said that he wanted to show taxpayers that lawmakers were being careful with state funds.
“It is our responsibility to find every dollar we can to find the best use of that dollar,” Parker said.
Under Parker’s legislative conference amendment, state funds could not be used for travel to a variety of legislative conferences. Among those attended by lawmakers are ones sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the State Exchange Project, the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of Insurance Legislators.
The Parker amendment would also prohibit the use of state funds to pay for legislative staffers to attend such conferences. Parker estimated that his amendment would save the state $100,000, which he said would cover the costs of two days of the legislative session, which is one of the longest in state history.
House Democratic Agenda Chairman Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita) told lawmakers that they could still pay for travel out of their campaign accounts, a common practice in Kansas and other states.
“We tell state agencies to tighten their belts. I believe we should do that,” Whipple said. “All of these travels can be paid out of campaign account.”
Parker said that the amendment would not cut the state’s membership in the groups, which allows legislative staffers to access research from groups like NCSL. Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina), who asked Parker about membership, said that he had no objections to the amendment as long as membership was not in jeopardy.
Other lawmakers objected to the part that would prohibit legislative staffers from having state funds to attend the conferences. They noted that the staffers should not spend their own funds and also said that the conferences help staffers in the Reviser of Statutes office and other support offices do their jobs.
“I have no problem using taxpayer dollars to send our staff to conferences to do their job better,” Speaker Pro Temp Scott Schwab (R-Olathe) said.
Schwab noted that the House chief clerk is a leader in a national group and other lawmakers have held national leadership posts.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Troy Waymaster (R-Russell) said that he has attended multiple national conferences and he has a chance to learn about what is occurring in other states and get legislative ideas for Kansas. He said he can also share what the state is doing with other states.
“It is not just a free for all and a party,” Waymaster said.
Kansas has long been a leader in several national groups, including having lawmakers hold the top spots in NCSL and ALEC. In 2012, the state routinely sent the largest delegation to NCSL conferences.
Parker’s amendment for Kobach’s office would have saved $86,000 with a cut in the travel budget and not filling a vacant staff attorney job. Parker said that he believed this would allow for more budget savings in the state. He also said that he did not believe all of Kobach’s travel is on state business. Kobach, who announced his gubernatorial candidacy earlier on Thursday, has a high national profile from his work on immigration and voting issues and for advising President Trump.
Rep. John Carmichael (D-Wichita) spoke in favor of Parker’s amendment, focusing on the amount of attorneys Kobach has hired. He said that prior secretaries of state had one official attorney on the payroll, while Kobach has put more on the payroll. Kobach has argued that his office has taken on new duties as the state voter fraud prosecutor, while Carmichael said that the office has only made nine prosecutions since taking on the duties.
“If this is a way to get control over the excessive spending on lawyers at the SOS office then I am all for it,” Carmichael said.
Rep. John Whitmer (R-Wichita) questioned why look at Kobach’s travel, when the travel budget for the Board of Regents is $24 million. Parker said that he believed that the secretary of state’s office was a good place to look.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Troy Waymaster (R-Russell) said that he did not believe that one office should be singled out on the travel issue.
“I come from the corporate world and you try to limit your travel and expenses there,” Waymaster said. “As I mentioned before, sometimes travel is necessary and regardless of what your personal feelings might be about the secretary of state, we shouldn’t single him out.”
Parker’s amendment was the second unsuccessful move by lawmakers this week to address out of state travel. Earlier this week, the House Appropriations Committee defeated a proposal from Rep. Brenda Landwehr (R-Wichita) to require that all out of state travel be pre-approved by the governor, House speaker, Senate president of state chief justice, depending on the branch of government involved. The Landwehr amendment would also require that all out of state travel be documented by the state Department of Administration.
The committee defeated Landwehr’s amendment after concerns were raised about the possibility for the proposal hindering state law enforcement and military members who frequently have to travel to neighboring states.
Parker said that he wanted to make sure state funds are being well spent.
“I do not mean to imply that these can’t be dollars well spent,” Parker said. “But as we address these deficits we should look for every efficiency we can.”