By Paul Soutar | Kansas Reporter
TOPEKA — Under the direction of Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, the Kansas Senate twice blocked efforts to safeguard the $581 million entrusted over 15 years to the troubled Kansas Bioscience Authority.
“All attempts to reform the agency or make them accountable to the taxpayers have failed,” said state Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, a KBA critic.
Wagle was behind the 2012 Legislature‘s first reform attempt when, on Feb. 3, she introduced Senate Bill 378 to tighten KBA’s conflict-of-interest requirements.
But three days later, on Feb. 6, Morris used his power as Senate president to reassign responsibility for the bill — from the Senate Commerce Committee that Wagle chairs to state Sen. Terrie Huntington’s Ethics and Elections Committee. No further action was taken.
“The Senate president put that bill in Ethics and Elections, where it died,” Wagle told Kansas Watchdog.
Then, on March 30, the House unanimously passed House Substitute for Senate Bill 40. That would have required KBA board members to step down or divest interests if a conflict arose.
Led by Morris, the Senate rejected the House measure the same day.
Then the Senate used a bit of sleight of hand to replace the contents of the bill passed in the House with a new, unrelated measure. It’s what insiders call a “gut and go.”
Exact circumstances of the Senate’s gut and go are unclear. Morris’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
“This type of thing is one example of the kind of parliamentary hocus pocus that makes it nearly impossible for taxpayers to follow what goes on in the Legislature,” said James Franko, communications director for the Kansas Policy Institute, a free-market think tank in Wichita.
Franko said he experienced the same kind of “legislative sausage making” exemplified in the Senate action while working for several members of the U.S. Congress before coming to KPI.
“It flies in the face of transparent, accountable government, and I certainly don’t remember it from Schoolhouse Rock,” Franko told Kansas Watchdog.
Schoolhouse Rock was a series of animated musical educational short films featured during the ABC network’s Saturday morning cartoons in the 1970s and ’80s. One of the films, “I’m just a bill,” explained the legislative process used to pass laws.
All was not lost.
The House and Senate did agree to withhold $22.6 million of KBA funding this year as requested by Gov. Sam Brownback.
The Senate approved two Brownback appointees to the KBA board.
Brownback rebuffed a Senate attempt to require KBA funding by a specific date next year by using a line item veto.
Wagle said changes in the board and withholding money are good but aren’t a permanent fix for KBA’s problems.
“We need a lot more fixing,” Wagle said. “We’re doing what we can at the moment but Senate leadership has been blocking reform measures.”
She said for now she’s relying on a new board to sort our how KBA operates.
“Hopefully we’ll have some more information next year and we’ll work on it again,” Wagle said.
Morris, the Senate leader, has been a KBA supporter since its creation in 2004 and of Tom Thornton, KBA’s former president and CEO who resigned days after an audit of the organization began in April 2011.
KBA initiated the audit at Brownback’s insistence and chose the auditing firm. Agriculture Secretary Dale Rodman monitored the audit for Brownback and was harshly critical of the audit’s findings and KBA’s conduct and findings in hearings before Wagle’s committee in January.
Conflict-of-interest allegations have focused on KBA board members Bill Sanford and Angela Kreps, both Morris appointees. Kreps is no longer on the board.
Sanford is CEO and 14 percent owner of NanoScale, a Manhattan bioscience company that received four KBA grants. Former board member Kreps is president of KansasBio, which also received grants from KBA while she was a board member.
“I think the only thing we need to be concerned about is letting the KBA do the work it was created to do, bringing jobs and new investments to Kansas,” said Joshua Lewis, Morris’s chief of staff, in an email statement he attributed to Morris. “More than 3,000 hours and 1 million taxpayer dollars have been spent on an audit that turned up nothing but minor, correctable irregularities. That’s time and money that could have been spent shoring up more good-paying jobs for Kansans and putting Kansas at the forefront with these up-and-coming industries.”