United States Project

The reporters covering Kansas’ budget crisis do solid work. There just aren’t enough of them

June 12, 2015

Last Saturday night at the Kansas statehouse, as the legislature’s agonizing budget deliberations dragged on into a record-tying 107th day of the session, it was Stephen Koranda’s turn to buy pizza for his colleagues in the press corps. The meal didn’t set him or his employers at Kansas Public Radio back too much: It was only “a couple of pizzas,” he said.

Indeed, the core group of Kansas statehouse reporters amounts to only about eight or nine—a number that includes two Associated Press correspondents and a subscription service but just a few in-state outlets: KPR, the Wichita Eagle, the Topeka Capital-Journal, and the Lawrence Journal-World. Currently missing from the list is the Kansas City Star, which has gone without a statehouse correspondent in Topeka for the last few months of the session after the departure of longtime reporter Brad Cooper.

The extended session has drawn other reporters to the Capitol in recent weeks. By and large, though, the task of covering the most prolonged, contentious, complex, and consequential legislative session in modern Kansas history has fallen to this able but comparatively tiny group—and the coverage reflects that fact. There is solid journalism being done about the budget crisis. But given the magnitude of the story—an ideological and political showdown over a $400 million budget hole, likely to result either in historic tax hikes or sweeping, across-the-board cuts—there is less original reporting, from fewer outlets, than you might hope, even in a largely rural state.

The Star, for its part, has not ignored the budget story; political columnists Yael Abouhalkah and Steve Kraske have written some impassioned and intelligent pieces about the controversy from afar, and the Star has picked up dispatches from the AP and the Wichita Eagle, its fellow McClatchy paper. But the Missouri-based paper’s large Kansas readership (three of the five most populous cities in the state reside in the Kansas City metro area) would be better served with at least one correspondent in Topeka examining the legislature from its perspective

Star editor Mike Fannin promises this coverage gap will be closed soon. “It’s a very important beat to us, and it’s important to our readers,” Fannin told CJR. “We are filling the job. It won’t be in time for this session, but we also didn’t think this session would go on as long as it did.”

One segment of the news industry has had more people at the statehouse since the session went into overtime late last month: local TV, which doesn’t deploy any regular statehouse correspondents (though Koranda singles out Pilar Pedraza of Wichita’s KWCH as a frequent visitor). Blunting the journalistic value of this influx is the fact that many of the TV stories have focused on the issue of how much money the extended session is costing taxpayers—a figure that now stands close to $1 million.

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This is certainly worth noting, but it’s chump change compared to the $400 million shortfall at the center of the debate. The real question for reporters to be asking is: Who pays for that $400 million—the general public, via higher sales taxes and lost exemptions (Gov. Sam Brownback’s preference)? Some 300,000 business owners, via a repeal of Brownback’s exemption for “pass-through” income, which helped create the shortfall in the first place (a move the governor has threatened to veto)? State agencies and their beneficiaries via more budget cuts (on top of those that have already been made)? And, relatedly, how are those decisions being made?

The reporting that has tackled those questions comes largely from the small core group of statehouse reporters. And they’ve done some commendable work. The Eagle’s Bryan Lowry has scored some scoops relevant to the budget battle (and to Kansas open-records laws), and he has examined questions about tax fairness. The AP’s John Hanna drew national notice this week for wandering into a closed-door GOP meeting on possible budget cuts, declining to leave when first asked, and dutifully reporting what he heard. (Hanna and his colleagues in the press corps engaged in a similar stand for transparency earlier this session.) The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Jonathan Shorman shed light on a Kansas Chamber of Commerce email advising state legislators on how to vote.

There are a few other players to mention as well. The Kansas Health Institute news service, a nonprofit based in Topeka, has produced some strong stories like this explainer on the different factions within the legislature. For a liberal take, there’s Chris Reeves from Daily Kos. Then there’s the University of Kansas Statehouse Wire Service, launched last year, which was designed both to help journalism students learn the trade and to provide content for the many newspapers in the state that can’t afford to send correspondents—though that program is now on summer break.

The perfect tool for statehouse coverage: Twitter

So for devoted readers who want to keep track of what’s happening in Topeka, there are a few reliable bylines to seek out. But the best way to follow the action? It’s probably on Twitter at #ksleg, where correspondents, legislators, lobbyists, concerned Kansans, and even out-of-state rubberneckers have joined the conversation.

“Twitter is so perfect for statehouse coverage,” Koranda said, noting that he has picked up some 300 followers in the last two weeks as the legislative battle has trended. The surge of interest on social media shows that there’s an audience strongly engaged with the story—all the more reason that it would be good to see more coverage.

Often, #ksleg captures not only the wonky details but also the intensity, urgency, and gallows humor of the crisis better than the daily newspaper dispatches.

It’s also a repository of rich story prompts. For instance, there’s the role of lobbyists, both national and in-state, just offstage: hiding their faces from cameras in the Capitol, hanging out with lawmakers at the local pub, placing banner ads on local news sites, and arguing their case from afar.

The policy debate plays out on Twitter, too, with advocates making the case that the shift from income to sales taxes would hurt middle-class and low-income people, and legislators arguing that revenues from higher sales taxes will be less than promised because consumers will spend less or shop online. (One thing we aren’t hearing in the coverage of late is anyone making the affirmative case for higher sales taxes—even though this appears to be the most likely outcome of the standoff.)

On a more humorous but still significant note, there is the contingent of officials from neighboring Missouri mockcheering from the sidelines, adding fuel to the fire of the economic “Border War” that Brownback has invoked in making the case for his own tax policies. For example:

This is an element of the story that is particularly significant to residents on both sides of the state line in the Kansas City metro—and a storyline for Cooper’s soon-to-be-announced successor at the Star to revisit in light of whatever develops in Topeka.

Lowry, Koranda, and the other regulars have touched on these issues. But this story is big enough, and complex enough, for more. There are opportunities for some other enterprising reporters to give them a shot as well. Granted, media organizations here as elsewhere have limited resources—but this is the place to use them, and this is the time.

As of this writing, at the beginning of Day 113, the House had passed legislation overnight filling much of the budget hole with higher sales taxes but still likely requiring Brownback to make further budget cuts—with his favored pass-through exemption for business income remaining untouched. If the Senate follows suit, this would be an outcome likely to satisfy no one, except perhaps the governor, and the impact on working Kansans will be felt for some time to come. So before the next budget crisis hits, we can only hope that the legislature will be better prepared—and that the statehouse might have more than a two-pizza press corps.

Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.