Not so open records
Kansas has open records and meetings laws that are intended to be applied liberally to all levels of government in the state, but they were enacted long before the advent of cell phones and email and even the Republican attorney general has said the law is outdated.
In January, The Wichita Eagle reported that the state's budget director had used a private email account to communicate with lobbyists about the proposed state budget. Brownback later acknowledged that he had been using a private cell phone and email account to conduct public business since his days as a U.S. senator. Legislation that would have made those communications subject to the open records law went nowhere during the 2015 legislative session.
Newspapers and citizens requesting information from public and publicly-funded entities sometimes have been forced to wait long periods for responses, been told the information could only be provided for a considerable charge or have simply had their requests rejected. In 2014, for instance, a student group at the University of Kansas was charged $1,800 by the university to fulfill an open records request.
The state gives the attorney general and local district attorneys the power to enforce those laws by taking violators to local courts, which can assess civil fines of up to $500 per offense. But despite dozens of complaints made to the attorney general and district attorneys regarding alleged violations of the open records and meetings laws, those officials rarely seek out any civil penalties.
Less than aggressive enforcement
Kansas' chief election officer, the secretary of state, is an elected position, and the top staffers are political appointees.
Formerly, the secretary of state's election-related duties were mostly limited to administering the vote. But this year, the state legislature gave the secretary of state power to prosecute cases of alleged voter fraud, which some fear will keep certain segments of the population from voting amid the threat of legal action.
The state's Governmental Ethics Commission monitors and enforces state campaign finance laws. Since 2013, when the commission was criticized by some Republicans for allegedly targeting conservatives, it has not levied a fine greater than $500, which is far lower than previous fines and a small fraction of the allowable amount.
Shaking up civil service
Several of Brownback’s political allies have landed state jobs or contracts. Former campaign spokesman John Milburn left for a similar job at the Department of Administration, while two former campaign officials became deputy executive director of the Kansas Lottery and the governor’s director of appointments. In 2013, the Kansas Department for Children and Families awarded a contract to a Mississippi company whose CEO had donated the maximum allowable amount to Brownback’s campaign. That came two years after one of the firm's employees was hired to head the state's child support enforcement division.
Three former aides to Brownback, including his former chief of staff, set up a lobbying firm that worked on behalf of insurance companies involved in the privatization of Kansas' Medicaid system.
"There's a lot of power grabbing going on,” said state Sen. Anthony Hensley, the Senate Democratic leader, adding that below the surface, “there's corruption, too."
Earlier this year, Brownback signed legislation directing that new state government hires not be covered by civil service job protection, a change expected to reduce the size of the civil service system. Current employees will be allowed to voluntarily move into non-civil service jobs.
"I do think the quality of government has suffered tremendously over the past couple of years," said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. "Talented, midlevel bureaucrats have been forced out. The civil service protection has been cut back dramatically."
Brownback also has used executive orders to make a couple of controversial changes in state personnel policy, including repealing a ban on discrimination against state employees because of their sexual orientation.