Monthly Archives: January 2012

Draft House redistricting map released

TOPEKA — A draft map of state House districts emerged today. Here’s a first look at the Sedgwick County portion of the draft. A statewide map and more detailed look at Sedgwick County is available here.  A hearing regarding the map is set for noon Wednesday in the Statehouse, according to House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson.

Draft House redistricting map

Rare bipartisan support… with a chuckle

Gov. Sam Brownback joins Democrats during an news conference Friday.

TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to reduce income taxes has drawn a flurry of criticism since he announced it at the start of the legislative session.

This morning he took a break from the serious debate over taxes to crack a joke in the company of Democratic leaders as they joined in rare bipartisan support to speed up some highway repair projects.

Brownback walked into his ceremonial office with other political leaders as tape recorders started and cameras clicked in standard news conference fashion.

His first line at the mic: “We’re all gathered here today to announce support for my tax package.”

The room erupted in laughter. It must be a Friday in Topeka.

 

 

Governor’s Agriculture Secretary blasts Kansas Bioscience Authority board; KBA president calls it Brownback takeover bid

TOPEKA — Secretary of Agriculture Dale Rodman assailed the board of the Kansas Bioscience Authority today, saying it spent way too much on overhead and allowed one of its members to personally benefit in violation of state law.

Rodman also blasted the board for hiring and failing to adequately supervise Tom Thornton, the authority’s former chief executive officer who has been found in an audit to have misused public funds and electronically shredded documents on his way out of the agency.

Rodman, assigned by Gov. Sam Brownback to monitor the audit of the KBA, laid blame squarely at the feet of the board as he testified to a joint meeting of the House and Senate commerce committees.

“We would not be here today if the KBA board had done their job properly,” Rodman said.

After the hearing, KBA board President Dan Watkins acknowledged there were problems with Thornton’s management, but said he thinks Rodman’s criticism are part of an attempt by the governor to seize control of the KBA from the independent board that runs it now.

“I think it’s obvious the governor is pursuing a … take-no-prisoners approach until he has control of the operations and the investments of the KBA,” he said.

Watkins said the board has reformed its practices to prevent future executives from doing some of the things Thornton was found to have done, such as using the authority credit card for personal expenses and using an office assistant to run his personal errands.

The $960,000 audit, by the national firm BKD, reported that the authority’s investment policies were basically sound. But it found that Thornton had spent agency money on artwork for his home, plane tickets for a job interview and created an uncomfortable work environment by having an office romance with an employee he hired and ultimately married.

Rodman, however, said the authority spent way too much money on buildings, consultants, attorneys and other expenses.

“They spent nearly 40 cents of every dollar on invested on internal expenses,” he said. “This is unacceptable performance.”

In reply, Watkins referred to a KBA letter indicating that was about 20 percent.

Sen. Chris Steineger, D-Kansas City, distributed his own calculations from KBA balance sheets showing overhead ranging from 34 percent in 2008 to 14 percent in 2001.

Rodman also was especially critical of approximately $875,000 in KBA grants to two companies where KBA board member Bill Sanford served as chairman of the board.

The audit concluded there was no wrongdoing because Sanford recused himself from the decisions on grants that benefited the companies.

Rodman pointed out that state law authorizing the authority specifically states “no part of the funds of the authority shall inure to the benefit of, or be distributed to, its employees, officers or members of the board.”

The only exceptions written into the law are for expense reimbursement and payments for services rendered to the authority.

Investing in board members’ businesses “does not pass the smell test,” Rodman said. “If it smells bad, it is bad and you should not do it. If any of the members wanted money from the KBA, they should have quit and followed the normal request procedures.”

Watkins said he thinks the authority complied with the law by requiring members to recuse themselves from voting when they have a conflict.

He said in the relatively small bioscience community, it would be impractical to expect members to resign every time there is a potential conflict.

“If you want to find a board that is never going to have a potential conflict from which they have to recuse themselves, you’re going to have to look pretty damn far and wide to find anybody who knows anything about bioscience to get them involved,” Watkins said. “That’s why we have those (recusal) procedures and that’s why we follow them.”

The joint commerce meeting was the third public hearing on the audit since the 900-page report was released on Monday. And lawmakers have now begun solidifying their opinions about it.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, pointed out that Jim Snyder, the BKD executive who oversaw the audit process, had testified Wednesday that the authority has adequate procedures in place to accomplish its mission and follows them.

He said the Brownback administration had taken a direct hand in crafting the audit and its scope and should accept its results.

“If the administration does not take ownership of this report and say this is a decent audit, what have we done this for?” he said.

“I accept the audit, I don’t accept all the (auditors’) statements,” Rodman replied.

Sen. Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said the authority’s position seems to be: “Tom Thornton was a bad apple, go ahead and throw him under the bus, and we’re going to be good stewards of your money.

“That doesn’t satisfy my feeling that this thing going forward is going to do what it’s supposed to do,” Merrick added.

Lawmakers blast Brownback plan to post teacher evaluations online

TOPEKA — Several lawmakers on the House Committee on Education this morning blasted a proposal by Gov. Sam Brownback to post teacher evaluations on public websites, saying it would create too much tension between teachers, parents and students.

Rep. Jana Goodman, R-Leavenworth, called the proposal a veiled attempt to blame all student performance outcomes on teachers.

“Most schools know who the good teachers are,” she said. “This is too much.”

The proposal would rate all educators’ performance as highly effective, effective, progressing or ineffective. That would be based 50 percent on growth in student achievement, 40 percent on input from supervisors, peers, parents and students and 10 percent on by contributions by the employee to the profession. Exact criteria would be defined by the state board of education.

It would prohibit any student from being taught by educators rated ineffective two years in a row. And it would let districts fire teachers designated as ineffective two years in a row if that teacher had a chance to get some professional development to address their shortcomings.

Only educators in classrooms with students deemed at-risk would be eligible to be nominated to get a $5,000 bonus for their work.

Committee Chairman Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, said he opposes the idea.

“I think it would create more problems than it’s solve,” he said after the presentation.

Others on the committee put it in harsher terms.

Rep. Judith Loganbill, D-Wichita, said the proposal would eliminate existing evaluations and prevent teachers from having any input on their own evaluations. She said the proposal looks like it applies to teachers profit models used by businesses and that principals and superintendents may hedge toward more favorable evaluations knowing the material will be viewed publicly.

Loganbill said some educators at some schools, such as Wichita’s Levy Special Education Center, which serves students with disabilities such as autism, would face unfavorable ratings every year since student achievement is unlikely to grow much year-to-year. And she suggested that such online evaluations could create a system like Atlanta’s where teachers say they felt pressured to tamper with test results to show achievement.

Rep. Ronald Ryckman, R-Meade, said it should be up to local school boards and administrators to fire bad teachers — not an online symposium.

“I just think that would be a disaster,” he said of the online evaluation proposal.

Jon Hummell, director of operations in the Governor’s office, defended the plan, saying it identifies and rewards the best teachers and encourages more engagement between teachers, parents and students.

Hummell acknowledged that online evaluations would put pressure on teachers with poor marks. But he questioned whether that’s a bad thing. He said research suggests it’s important to identify teacher effectiveness and that federal regulations may impose such public evaluations in the future.

 

Kobach: Voter ID law working; education campaign to start in Wichita

Secretary of State Kris Kobach

TOPEKA — Secretary of State Kris Kobach said this morning that the first test of the state’s new voter ID law in Cimarron didn’t dampen turnout and that only one person didn’t have an ID at the polls – and that person left her ID at home on purpose in a show of opposition to the law.

Kobach told the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections that the Cimarron case provides a bit of evidence that the law works.

But it faces a much bigger test in Wichita on Feb. 28 when city voters decide whether to allow the city to use $2 million in subsidies for the planned Ambassador Hotel, a 117-room, $22.5 million hotel proposed for the former Union National Bank building at Douglas and Broadway.

Kobach said his office plans to start running public service announcements on TV and radio to educate voters about the law starting Feb. 1. Then it will buy TV, radio and print ads to further get the word out about the law in the eight days leading up to the Feb. 28 vote. Kobach said the education campaign in Wichita — and future voter education this spring and leading up to the primary and general election — is funded by $300,000 the state received from the Help America Vote Act.

Here’s some background from a previous story in The Eagle: http://www.kansas.com/2011/12/28/2155500/wichita-hotel-vote-will-test-states.html

Meanwhile, concern has arisen over access to free birth certificates for the purpose of voting as reports filter in that some people requesting certificates have been turned away or told they’d have to pay at least $15 for a copy.

Kobach said there was confusion on whether the free birth certificates for voting purposes would be available Jan. 1, 2013, when the proof of citizenship provisions of the law kick in or on Jan. 1, 2012, when other aspects of the law went into effect. Kobach said he clarified to county officials last week that the certificates should have been available starting this year.

The certificates could be an issue this year for someone who doesn’t have any qualifying ID and goes to the department of motor vehicles in hopes of getting a non-driving identification card in order to vote. Kobach said the new law provides for multiple forms of ID to get a non-driving ID card and that he doubts many, if any, people would fit that hypothetical situation.

Kobach said he told county clerks about the birth certificate availability last week.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, said that the birth certificate requirement seemed to be a “poll tax,” but said she wasn’t aware the bill that became law had provisions for free birth certificates. She said one person who presented a birth certificate asking for a free non-driving ID was turned away in Sedgwick County.

Kobach said his office is trying to educate everyone about how free access to IDs works. He said the law allows people to apply for free birth certificates at county offices and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s bureau of vital statistics. It’s unclear if those offices are prepared to process applications right now.

 

Law for slots at Wichita Greyhound Park emerges in Senate

A bill that could allow a re-vote on whether to allow slot machines at Wichita Greyhound Park emerged in the Senate this week. Now it heads to the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee.

The bill would let Sedgwick County voters reconsider the slots issue if supporters could round up 5,000 petition signatures. It also attempts to simplify the ballot question. That’s a key component because supporters say an ambiguous ballot question may have caused the slots question to narrowly fail in a special election in 2007.

In 2007, the ballot question asked: “Shall the Kansas lottery be authorized to place electronic gaming machines in Sedgwick County?”

Supporters say that worried some voters who foresaw the proliferation of slots across the county. The question failed by 244 votes. This year’s SB319 targets just the racetrack.

This time, the question would read: ‘‘Shall the operation of electronic gaming machines at the Wichita Greyhound Park by the Kansas lottery be permitted in Sedgwick county?’’

Gov. Sam Brownback said before the legislative session began that he hoped gambling proposals would not be debated because they distract from a huge list of other pressing issues lawmakers face, including Medicaid reform, new tax policy, a state employee pension overhaul and redistricting.

But supporters of the bill said it could create 500 jobs and that they would continue to seek support.

Meanwhile, Kansas Democrats have proposed a sweeping job creation plan that includes a proposal to use new revenues from a future casino in southeast Kansas and slots at the Wichita Greyhound Park and two other locations to fund infrastructure repairs that would require new hires.

 

County, city leaders write columns in “Kansas Liberty Freedom Express News”

Two Sedgwick County commissioners — Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau — and Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell wrote columns this month in “Kansas Liberty Freedom Express News,” an eight-page conservative publication.

Peterjohn wrote about the county’s jail and efforts to make the county more transparent by publishing its “checkbook” online at www.sedgwickcounty.org. Ranzau railed against a sustainable communities grant that the Regional Economic Area Partnership received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

O’Donnell wrote about developments in south Wichita.

Peterjohn said the publication was the work of Craig Gabel, a Wichita restaurant owner who ran unsuccessfully for a county commission seat in 2008.

The publication is online at www.kansasfreedom.com.

Audit finds document destruction, misspending at Kansas Bioscience Authority

OLATHE – An in-depth audit of the Kansas Bioscience Authority found that former agency head Tom Thornton destroyed documents on his computer that had been subpoenaed by a prosecutor investigating the agency.

The audit, by the firm BKD LLP, also found that Thornton used public funds to fly to Cleveland for a job interview and that employees alleged that he engaged in inappropriate intimate relations in the KBA’s office, with an employee who later became his wife.

The audit concluded that the couple’s relationship hurt office morale but, citing a legal opinion of KBA’s contract council, it didn’t apparently violate state law because employees of the state-funded KBA are not technically state employees.

The audit also concluded that former KBA board member Angela Kreps may have improperly participated in deliberations and voted on a grant to a private bioscience association she headed.

It also questioned some of the agency’s contracting practices.

“Our analysis found 301 payments without a contract, including 102 payments that violated KBA’s Contract Policy,” the audit said. “The total contract cost involved totaled $1,219,271.81 in payments without a contract, including $571,828.20 in payments which violated Contract Policy.”

Those are some of the conclusions in a lengthy report of a “forensic audit” of the agency that was forced upon the agency by Gov. Sam Brownback, after questions were raised in a series of legislative hearings called by Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committtee.

In a statement, Brownback called on the board to place a moratorium on funding new projects until the Legislature determines how to proceed.

Wagle is planning to conduct two hearings later this week on the audit and its findings in her Senate committee.

The audit report was made public Monday afternoon following a three-hour closed session meeting of the board and the auditors at the KBA headquarters in Olathe.

The audit concluded that Thornton used public funds to pay for a trip to Cleveland to interview for a job with the Cleveland Clinic, a major health provider in Ohio.

Under fire at the KBA, Thornton resigned in April of last year after landing the new job with the Cleveland Clinic. His wife, whom he met while both worked for the KBA, left with him.

The audit says the state is seeking to recover more than $4,500 from Thornton.

However, the auditors said the full scope of misspending could not be determined because Thornton erased and electronically shredded document files kept only on his KBA-provided laptop computer.

Investigators were unable to recover the files despite the use of sophisticated computer forensic tools.

The timeline of the audit shows that some files were destroyed after Wagle and representatives of the governor’s office began pressing for the forensic audit, which is a deep look into the workings of an agency designed to uncover information that can, if necessary, be used as evidence in a criminal prosecution.

The Johnson County District Attorney’s office confirmed last year that it was conducting an investigation of the authority.

Thornton and board members, including former Gov. John Carlin, had told Wagle and her committee that the allegations against the authority were unfounded.

The Bioscience Authority was created by the Legislature in an effort to attract high-paying jobs to the state. The agency’s charge was to identify and help fund promising research at the state’s universities and in private-sector companies.

The Legislature committed $581 million to the agency and placed it under the direction of an independent board in an effort to insulate it from Capitol politics. The first sign that things were going wrong came last year when scientists at Center of Innovation for Biomaterials in Orthopaedic Research, claimed that they were being shortchanged on a five-year, $20 million grant that they say they were supposed to receive from the authority. CIBOR, a joint venture led by Via Christi health system and Wichita State University, is attempting to adapt the university’s innovative aviation materials for medical uses, such as hip and knee replacement joints, battlefield splints and lightweight stretchers. Thornton denied that the authority committed to any funding beyond an initial $4 million investment, but lawmakers said authority executives indicated the full funding would be granted in a series of meetings with legislators at the Capitol. After Wagle began looking into the situation, employees of the agency told her they believed that funds were being misspent and that Thornton was using a state employee to perform personal errands.

According to documents provided to Wagle’s committee, 12 of the authority’s 21 employees, including Thornton and his wife Lindsey, were making more than $100,000 a year. All employees received raises of 4-15 percent last year, when the state was instituting salary freezes and layoffs of other state employees to close a $500 million budget gap.

Thornton’s base salary was $265,000 and he was given a $100,000 bonus.

His wife, director of special projects for the authority, was making a salary of $107,500, plus a $5,000 bonus.

Both left the KBA after Thornton landed his job with the Cleveland Clinic.

The hearings also brought out that Thornton, while working for the authority, also held a $50,000-a-year position as a director of Advanced Life Sciences, a pharmaceutical company that had received government grants to test an experimental antibiotic.

The company foundered after the drug was rejected by the Food and Drug Administration.

Last year, Wagle was harshly criticized by legislative leadership on both sides of the aisle for investigating the bioscience authority. Republican and Democratic legislative leaders said her investigations into the KBA could threaten Kansas’ status as the site for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The federal government selected Manhattan as the site for the $650 million laboratory that will study ways to counter biological terrorism and threats to the nation’s food supply. The KBA was one of the lead agencies in convincing the federal government to site the facility in Kansas.

Economist Laffer offers guidance to Kansas Senate

Economist Arthur Laffer addresses the Senate tax committee.

Celebrity economist Arthur Laffer urged Kansas lawmakers to stay the course on cutting income taxes and battling unions to bring the state to greater prosperity.

“If you tax people who work and you pay people who don’t work — do I need to say the next sentence to you? Don’t be surprised if you find a lot of people not working,” said Laffer, who consulted with Gov. Sam Brownback and Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan on the administration’s plan to cut taxes on select business income.

Laffer, who has a $75,000 contract to consult with the state on tax reform, appeared before both the House and Senate tax committees.

He told legislators that the nine states without a state income tax significantly outperform higher-tax states.

“The performance difference is huge,” he said. “You can’t tax a state into prosperity. You really can’t.”

Laffer also said that his research has shown that states with right-to-work laws fared better economically among the no-income-tax states than states that allow for closed union shops.

Kansas is already a right-to-work state, meaning that no worker can be compelled to join a union as a condition of employment.

And Brownback’s plan would start to move Kansas in the direction of being a no-income-tax state as well.

The plan would abolish state income tax on limited liability companies, sole proprietor businesses, partnerships, personal income from farming and subchapter S corporations. That exception would be available to about 190,000 taxpayers and encompasses most small businesses and many large ones.

Most wage-earners would pay income tax at 3 percent on their first $15,000 of income and 4.9 percent on anything over that. The plan gets rid of the state’s earned income tax credit, which rebates taxes to low-income single parents, shifting money to social programs directed at the poor. It also holds the state’s sales tax — which was scheduled to decline next year — steady at 6.3 percent.

Republican members of the Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee appeared awed by Laffer, best known as the architect of President Reagan’s supply-side economic policies.

“What an honor and privilege to have you here in Kansas,” said Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe.

But Sen. Tom Holland, a Democrat who ran against Brownback in the 2010 election, questioned Laffer’s assertions that income-tax policies are what make prosperous states prosperous.

For example, he pointed out that Texas and Alaska have vast energy resources. Florida and Nevada, tourism.

“I think it’s a false analogy,” Holland said. “I think trying to make this argument that we can wean ourselves off of an income tax and expect these types of growth, that are in fact driven by resources that are outside of our control, I think that’s a pure fallacy.”

Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, admonished Holland for his aggressive questioning of Laffer, who he said was “a special guest who has proven expertise in the field of economics going back decades. So we’re going to try to plumb his source of knowledge and everything the best we can.”

“I don’t want any more of those” kinds of questions, Donovan said. “We’ve had this discussion but that’s the last one I’m going to allow.”

Responding to Holland, Laffer acknowledged that some other states do have advantages.

“You’re right, Florida is not Kansas,” he said. “But don’t tell me you can’t learn anything from Florida.”

He also said there’s also a lot of internal data from states such as Ohio and West Virginia showing the effects of tax increases and cuts.

Despite Donovan’s admonition, the tough questioning of Laffer continued when Donovan opened the discussion to the audience.

Kari Ann Rinker, a single mother who represents the National Organization for Women at the Capitol, objected to the portion of Brownback’s tax plan repealing the earned income credit.

“How will eliminating an earned income tax credit for a single mom that earns $20,000 or less a year encourage her to work and become prosperous?” she said.

Laffer replied, “I was for a number of years a single father raising four children and I know the circumstances. It’s devastating. I’m gonna go back to the Kennedy quote here if I may, when Jack Kennedy said that the best form of welfare is still a good high-paying job. And you just can’t create prosperity through handouts or programs like that.”

He said overall economic growth would help the kind of woman Rinker described.

“My guess, and this is me coming as a macroeconomist, is that if we can create jobs here in Kansas, that that will redound to the favor of a single mom raising kids,” Laffer said.

He also said he thinks it will be more efficient to use the money the state will save by eliminating the earned income credit to provide direct health and social service benefits to the poor, as Brownback proposes.

Rinker wasn’t satisfied, however.

“Our governor accused women, of people using these credits as a measure of fraud. He used the word fraud. People are fraudulently taking this credit,” she said. “You’ve got to talk to the governor about his phrases,” Laffer responded. “That’s not a phrase I would ever use. But I would tell you that I really, honestly believe that these programs that the governor is proposing are far more likely to bring in jobs than anything else.”

Pastors to deliver petition calling for House Speaker Mike O’Neal’s resignation

House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson

Two pastors from Topeka plan to hand deliver more than 30,000 signatures this afternoon demanding that House Speaker Mike O’Neal resign because of an e-mail he forwarded to other House Republicans.

That e-mail is about President Barack Obama and quotes Psalm 109:8: “Let his days be few and brief; and let others step forward to replace him.”

The Hutchinson Republican leader said he thought that to mean Obama’s days in office — not death. The Bible quote has been used on bumper stickers and has been widely circulated on the Internet. But the context from the King James Version of the Bible has been pointed out by critics. The next verse reads: “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.”

O’Neal’s office issued a statement regarding the e-mail and criticism about it. “I understand the debate over the verse interpretation, about which I have explained and for which I have repeatedly apologized to the extent anyone misconstrued my intent or was otherwise offended,” O’Neal said. “I respect both the president and the office.”

The petition surfaced on the Internet activism website Faithful America. It says: “As people of faith, we believe that scripture should never be used to justify praying for the death of anyone. Speaker O’Neal’s hateful abuse of scripture is unacceptable and a disgrace to his office, and he should immediately resign.”

Rev. Tobias Schlingensiepen, a senior minister at First Congregational Church in Topeka and Rev. Jim McCollough, executive director of Topeka Center for Peace and Justice will deliver the signatures and talk at a news conference at 1 p.m. in the Statehouse.