By John Celock
The Kansas House of Representatives endorsed a rules change limiting the hours they could be session, along with a change preventing bill bundling during a three hour debate on the body’s procedures.
Lawmakers used Tuesday’s floor session to insert new rules that would prohibit the House from meeting between midnight and 8 a.m., along with preventing conference committee reports from containing multiple bills at once. The passage of the two changes came as lawmakers defeated other proposals, including one to include recorded votes on certain floor actions.
“Accountability means being informed on what we vote on and casting a responsible vote on that knowledge,” Rep. John Rubin (R-Shawnee) told his colleagues Tuesday about the various rules amendments he was offering.
The hours amendment, Rubin said, would allow lawmakers to have floor debate when they are awake. Explaining that 3 a.m. voting sessions is “not good public policy” Rubin said that lawmakers will be more coherent during debates.
Late night sessions have become a norm towards the end of the annual session in Kansas and many states. Last year, Kansas lawmakers passed a school-funding bill that contained a provision allowing local school districts to end teacher tenure in the early morning hours. In 2013, Kansas lawmakers passed a sales tax bill after midnight.
Those objecting to the bill said that the hour provision could lead to delays in lawmaking, including adding state money if lawmakers have to gavel in for another session when they are an hour away from voting. House Rules Committee Chairman John Barker (R-Abilene) noted that the mandatory end could allow opponents of legislation the ability to speak in an attempt to run out the clock in hopes of defeating the bill.
Rubin addressed the objections; noting that House rules can be suspended and that could be done with the time if the House is close to finishing. He also noted that the rule would not prohibit House committees from meeting after midnight, and that lawmakers would not be under an imposed curfew and could do other work late night.
During the debate lawmakers mentioned the 2012 car accident that claimed the life of then Rep. Bob Bethell (R-Alden) who died in a car accident following a late night session that year. Rep. Barbara Bollier (R-Shawnee), a retired physician, told her colleagues about the benefits of sleep.
“I’ve always stood here in support of this amendment. As a physician I can tell you it is not safe for those who are older. I will not specify who, but I don’t see many 22 years old in this group,” she said. “Your body is not meant to stay awake that long. Studies have shown that without sleep you are impaired to the equivalent of being drunk. If we continue to work through the night without proper sleep we are making impaired choices.”
Bollier, who said that she believes the deaths of Bethell and another lawmaker were attributed to “the unfathomable hours we keep,” said she believed this was a chance for safety.
“I love you. I care about you. I believe the right thing to do is to have appropriate hours,” Bollier said. “I don’t want to lose another colleague. This amendment puts safety first.”
House members also passed a Rubin amendment that would ban the House from considering reports from conference committees that contain multiple bills. Under the Rubin amendment conference committees would only be able to include the original bill and one other bill that has passed either the House or Senate in a report. Rubin and his supporters spoke of past conference committee reports that had contained upwards of 12 bills.
Supporters said the “mega-bundling” practice caused lawmakers to be voting on legislation they had not spent time considering, if they were only Senate passed bills. In addition they noted that the rules prohibit separate votes on each item in a conference committee report, along with no amendments on a report.
Opponents of the “mega-bundling” amendment said that the measure was not needed since legislative leaders have been working to reduce the practice and few large-scale bundled measures had come to the floor in recent years.
Barker noted that the practice can promote legislative efficiency, by giving committee chairs the ability to put together bills on similar topics towards the end of session. But he said committee chairs do not routinely use the practice.
Lawmakers did vote down a Rubin proposal to have recorded votes on amendments and bills during Committee of the Whole debates. Under Kansas House practice, most bills are amended in the Committee of the Whole process, including a vote on the final version of the bill. A recorded vote by the House – meeting as the House and not the committee – is then taken the next day. Recorded Committee of the Whole votes only occur when requested.
Rubin and his supporters said that the change would allow increased transparency, including if a lawmaker changes their vote from the committee to the full House. Opponents said that the House is transparent including live audio feeds of sessions.
Rep. Dan Hawkins (R-Wichita) described one problem he could see.
“I do believe that this would cause us to look at things a little differently that cause problems,” he said. “One day we might vote no on an issue and the next day on final action we’ll vote yes. Then we’ll have to explain why we voted no then voted yes.”
Rep. Brett Hildabrand (R-Shawnee), a supporter, said that he believes those who opposed were doing so to help their own reelections.
“A lot of the arguments you will hear against it is for self protection for us as representatives,” Hildabrand said.