Legislative Update - January 27, 2012
Week three of the 2012 session saw a noticeable increase in the pace of legislative business, making each day seemingly fly by. Committees are meeting and working on bills daily, and a steady stream will begin making their way to the floor for debate very soon. On Wednesday, the House was on General Orders for the first time to debate legislation with final votes following on Thursday. I anticipate more votes will be made next week since our first session deadlines are quickly approaching.
As always, I’ll keep you updated and encourage you to stay informed of the issues under consideration by the Kansas Legislature. You can easily track the action through our legislative website where you find links to the various committees and pull up copies of the legislation we’re working on to evaluate. I always enjoy hearing your thoughts on the topics under consideration and appreciate the perspective I gain from an observer outside the building.
Kansas Bioscience Authority Audit
Early this week an external audit revealed concerning details regarding the leadership of the state funded Kansas Bioscience Authority (KBA). Based in Olathe, the KBA’s primary goal has been to attract high-tech biological science companies and jobs to Kansas through its partnership with the state. Since its inception in 2004, KBA has received $175 million in state funding to carry out this mission.
This partnership demands a great deal of trust, as the legislature has a critical responsibility to ensure taxpayer dollars are being put to efficient use in an open and transparent manner. Over the past year, both the legislature and the executive branch had become increasingly concerned with reports of spending abuse and inappropriate business dealings within the KBA. In response, a full forensic audit was ordered and subsequently conducted over the following months.
Results of the audit, performed by national firm BKD, focused on both the KBA board of directors and former Chief Executive Tom Thornton, who resigned soon after the audit was ordered. The 300 page summary confirmed numerous issues under Thornton’s leadership including: destroying documents, improper workplace conduct, misusing public funds, and tampering with KBA computer mainframe files. Evidence indicates Thornton may have tampered with files on the KBA mainframe computer which contained sensitive records only accessible to top level management. However, auditors were unable to completely prove that tampering occurred because backup copies of the drive are automatically deleted after 30 days.
Overall, the audit found little fault with the structure and operations of the KBA. However, Governor Brownback has suggested the KBA place a moratorium on new investments until the legislature determines how to move forward with the audit results. Members of the House and Senate Commerce Committees held a two day joint meeting to review the audit and its corresponding evidence, ask auditors questions, and begin evaluating the KBA’s future. In addition, the results of the audit have been turned over to the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office which has also been investigating the KBA.
This is a deeply troubling development, and I agree with the Governor’s assessment that the state must proceed with extreme caution until we have a full and complete understanding of exactly what has taken place. Under such difficult economic circumstances, any misuse or manipulation of public funding is intolerable. I anticipate KBA’s role will be heavily scrutinized in the weeks to come. It’s an issue I’m seriously concerned with and will continue to focus on while we work to determine the best possible solution and restore confidence.
Governor, Attorney General Object to EPA Regulation
Governor Brownback and Attorney General Schmidt have submitted a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) urging the agency to stop a proposed regulation on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) based on concerns the rule would place an undue burden on Kansas livestock producers. The regulation of contention, the CAFO Reporting rule, would require all CAFOs to report to the EPA regardless of their size or permit status. Kansas already maintains a comprehensive database and permitting process for animal feeding operations and Brownback and Schmidt contend the only change the rule would bring is an additional, unnecessary layer of federal government paperwork.
Brownback and Schmidt, both attorneys, note the EPA lacks jurisdiction over non-discharging CAFOs and has no legal authority to gather information from livestock producers. Furthermore, the two contend the rule would seize the state’s authority to regulate CAFOs which is supported by numerous court rulings and strongly recommended the rule be laid to rest for legal purposes. If the EPA decides to proceed with the rule, further public notice would be required since the agency has not addressed specific reporting requirements in the proposed rule.
The legislature has the initial responsibility for drawing the districts by appointing standing committees in the House and Senate to develop plans for consideration by each respective chamber. However, all three branches have a role in this essential process. New districts are created through legislation which must be signed by the Governor into law. In addition, the Kansas Constitution requires the House and Senate district maps to be reviewed by the Supreme Court before implementation. Congressional district plans are subject to the same process but do not require court approval. Nevertheless, each congressional map has been challenged in court in modern state history.
Today’s technology allows us to expedite the redistricting process. Although still a complicated and burdensome task, computer programs now allow members to move around district boundaries with the simple click of a button. In the past, changing district maps required colored pencils, large erasers, calculators, and massive bundles of printed population data resulting in the session to go beyond its normal 90 day allotment. The House intends for this not be the case this time around.
Our priority is to first focus on the House district map, then on the Senate, congressional, and Board of Education maps. The process to approve a new house district map will likely be the most complicated, political, and frustrating process for our chamber. Each district will inevitably shift in some fashion. This can be disappointing as some members will have to give up a community or region they have represented for years and/or take on new territory and constituents. Regardless, it’s a process that must take place, and it makes sense to finish the maps as quickly as possible so we can move on to the more pressing issues that directly impact Kansans.
Amending the Personal and Family Protection Act (HB 2353)
The bill currently resides in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee where it underwent two days of hearings this week. Proponents and opponents of the bill turned out in strong numbers to testify before the committee and possible action on HB 2353 could occur in the future. Like all other bills, I would appreciate hearing where you stand on HB 2353.
Time Limit for Certificates of Public Convenience (HB 2436)
HB 2436 is a good, simple bill that ensures a predictable turnaround by the Kansas Corporation Commission for public convenience certificates and provides a measure of confidence to new companies seeking certification in Kansas.
On Thursday, January 26, the House passed HB 2436 by a vote of 121 to 1. The bill is now in the Senate where it awaits further action.
Dissolution of Treece, Kansas (HB 2412)
The City of Treece had long been a victim of undermining and contamination by lead and zinc. As a result, residents of Treece were offered a buyout by the EPA to relocate. All but one household took advantage of the buyout. Under current law cities can be dissolved by election. However, no election has been held in Treece to dissolve the city because the residents have relocated.
On Thursday, January 26, the House passed HB 2412 by a vote of 122 to 0. The bill is now in the Senate where it awaits further action.
Caylee’s Law (HB 2534)
The bill currently resides in the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee where it is waiting on a hearing. I look forward to supporting this legislation as it is an essential tool to better protecting Kansas children.
Regents Reporting Requirements (HB 2533)
As a result, HB 2533 was introduced to require all state post-secondary educational institutions to develop reporting standards for cases of abuse. It currently resides in the House Judiciary Committee where it is waiting on a hearing.
As unimaginable as these circumstances may seem, the tragedy of the Penn State case has served us a warning. Our schools need to have clear, concise reporting standards for instances of abuse, and I’m confident this legislation uses the most reasonable approach to guarding against any similar circumstances.
I hope you take the time to follow the Legislature’s work in Topeka over the course of the 2012 session. Although early, policy proposals on the above issues, and many others, are quickly forming and I believe it is an important part of the process to keep my constituents updated. As you know, the devil is in the details and many components of these policies are subject to change. I encourage you to let me know your thoughts on the issues discussed by the legislature and others which might be affecting you. Please feel free to contact me and I’d be happy to discuss any topic you are interested in. Thank you for the honor of serving you!
Rep. Owen Donohoe
39th District Kansas