The Kansas attorney general dismissed the last elements of an open meetings complaint filed by a government-transparency group after the public was ordered to exit the Senate gallery and reporters were ushered from the chamber during a Medicaid protest in May, officials said Thursday.
Ron Keefover, president of the Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, said Attorney General Derek Schmidt's office rejected the coalition's argument the Kansas Open Meetings Act was violated when the public and journalists were forced out while Republican and Democratic senators, as well as employees of the governor and lawmakers, were allowed to stay.
"Closing the Senate chambers and not only ousting the media from the floor but threatening them with denial of their credentials to cover future proceedings is simply unwarranted and unheard of in my experience," Keefover said.
He said covering the May 29 protest that disrupted debate in the Senate was "a minimum right under the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press."
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, said on social media at that time that people were removed "to ensure the safety of everyone."
Nine people chanted and sang to express frustration by Senate GOP leadership's decision not to allow debate during the 2019 session on a House-passed bill expanding eligibility for Medicaid to an estimated 130,000 under the Affordable Care Act. The reform was a top priority of first-year Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
Previously, the attorney general indicated his office lacked jurisdiction to enforce constitutional challenges under KOMA. That portion of the complaint was jettisoned in June, but questions about whether Senate business was conducted outside the public's view was left unresolved.
Schmidt's office said in a letter to the coalition Wednesday that it couldn't find evidence the Senate did meaningful business during the protest while the chamber was off-limits to some individuals. The attorney general's staff also pointed to Senate rules allowing the body to depart from general requirements of KOMA, which could include closing the galleries to the public.
Keefover said dismissal of the complaint served to highlight the "dark state" approach favored by some in Kansas government. He referenced a University of Arizona study indicating Kansas ranked sixth from the bottom of the 50 states in compliance with open record requests.