Earning legislative wings under the radar
A few weeks ago, I was humored to read in an area daily newspaper that I was one of the area's most watched political figures in 2007. This "honor," though funny to me on one hand, was also like the cold Kansas January wind in my face -- a sudden wake-up call that life was indeed changing. Just a few weeks ago, I was a working mother of two teenagers and active in business and the community, but as they say in politics, operating "below the radar."
Now, more than seven weeks into the session, after lying low for a time, I have some initial impressions about our legislative process, about issues and about our future.
The first thing any new senator must get used to is the very traditional nature of the Senate. I was especially taken aback when the Senate actually commissioned my chair, a ceremonial act transferring use of the chair from former Sen. Kay O'Connor to the new myself. Of course, any new legislator must learn "legislative jargon" -- terms that would make your head spin. There are acronyms, like FY&I and GO and FA. There are cute phrases, like "gut and go" and "kill the bill" and "above the line." And then there are terms to define legislative status, such as "sine die," "at ease," "in recess," or, my favorite "turnaround." The latter, which is actually a noun, defines the time at the mid-point of the session where bills in one chamber must be complete and sent to the other chamber, at least in most cases (I won't get into that). Yet, the more I thought about this term, the more I thought how we need to turn the noun into a verb ... and truly turn things around.
The number of bills that we hear and vote on is staggering. And, most of them, which the public may not realize, are passed with no or very little opposition. Then there are the hundreds of bills that we don't vote on, the bills that don't make it out of committee, or the bills that don't even get a hearing to begin with. After a while one begins to ask, "Is there really that much wrong with this state to warrant this volume of legislation?"
And, to be true, there are things we need to fix and improve -- positive things our Legislature can do. Certainly, our core responsibility as legislators is to ensure our government agencies are running efficiently, that the public is being well served by public officials, that tax dollars are being well spent, that the most innocent have a voice, and that government has a proper, limited role in our lives. Yet, I have wondered more than once, whose agenda are we voting on, and what, exactly, are we voting on? With limited staff, it is challenging to uncover the meat of the bills we consider, and we often rely on the testimony we hear in committees, the views of other link-minded lawmakers, our own conscience, and most important, feedback from our constituents. I make it a practice to consult directly with my constituents on controversial issues or those considered "hot buttons."
For example, the statewide smoking ban generated a tremendous amount of opinion from across the state, both for and against. I produced an online survey to my constituent base, which represents a broad coalition of support. Their response verified my conscience. I have duplicated this effort on various other issues as well and will continue to do so, as your input is important to me.
One thing has struck me is the number of bills that simply fly through with fairly limited debate, must of which occurs in committee and not on the floor. Bills are cranked out, usually passing with little or no opposition. One thing has struck me is the "stacking of votes" on roll call, through a process called "Emergency Final Action," when the Senate literally votes on several bills or confirmations at once, with each senator required to call out the items they are opposed to. Ex: No on SB 113, Yes on the balance. Though a method to speed up the voting process, it truly illustrates to the layperson how greased the tracks are for legislation, legislation most people won't ever realize was even passed. My concern is that while much of this legislation may indeed be positive, some of it may not truly be good public policy, but rather good policy for the group or organization or industry supporting it -- policy that though officially reviewed by the Legislature, may or may not have been given the scrutiny the public would desire.
Of course, after a short learning period, a new senator gets a fairly firm grasp of this process and adjusts to the time pressures and small windows we have to consider our votes on each bill before us. In doing so, I have been and am committed to continuing to explain my votes, even on "below the radar legislation," in my legislative e-newsletters, so people understand the wide range of bills we consider and the impact, both short term and long term, these measures have. In that spirit, here are my initial impressions we as a state, and particularly those in elected office, must seek to turn around:
- We need to "turnaround" the ever increasing temptation for government to impose itself on areas of our lives it does not belong. Whether it be protecting business from needless regulation, respecting young girls and their parents by resisting mandatory use of the HPV vaccine, not imposing complicated systems for teenagers obtaining driver's licenses, or any other excessive measure, it should be the responsibility of government to remember that elitism is not a positive trait, and that trusting the people is a fundamental foundational principle of our state and nation.
- We need to "turnaround" our state in the protection of the most innocent and those with a limited or no voice. We must, if we are to acknowledge the truth about life, recognize that in violence against pregnant women, there is not one victim, but two. We must, in the face of an aging Baby Boomer population, make sure that our seniors, particularly those without families, are given a voice for their needs. We must, even in the positive of scientific progress, not forget the notion of right and wrong and that all life is precious.
- We need to "turnaround" the trend toward a lack of transparency in government. We must, as legislators, actively communicate our votes and our beliefs to our constituents, thus increasing accountability in government and exposure to the political and legislative process. We must, in our schools, encourage our youth to get involved in government, to be knowledgeable about issues in our culture, so our next generation of leaders is indeed prepared to lead.
In closing, I do want to communicate to the public that the vast majority of elected officials are indeed good people, and it has been a wonderful experience working with my fellow legislators to try to make good government on behalf of the people of our respective districts and the state as a whole. I urge you to contact your senator and your representative.
To contact me or sign up for my newsletter, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My Web site is www.senatorjulialynn.com where you can learn more about me and view all of my legislative updates.
To learn more about legislation or who your legislators are, visit www.kslegislature.org, where you can listen in to our floor deliberations. I encourage you to let us all know how you feel and to participate in your government -- for it is indeed your government.