Has the Kansas Bioscience Authority performed in the manner envisioned by those who drafted the legislation that created the authority or the legislators who approved the unique and creative method to raise money to help attract and recruit bioscience-related industry and business to the state?
The general answer should be a resounding “yes,” but there are many aspects of the KBA operation that raise serious questions and concerns.
This is why state Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has held recent hearings on the salaries of KBA President and CEO Tom Thornton and other employees. These hearings also have opened up other questions about the KBA and Thornton’s actions.
The KBA started off well in 2005 and was very successful in attracting new business and new jobs to the state. KBA operated on a lean budget with a small staff and, yet, it was able to attract a number of businesses and generate much interest throughout the country about Kansas as an ideal site for bioscience businesses.
KBA officials also were alert to possibilities of helping existing companies already operating in the state to expand their facilities and add new jobs.
The KBA was so successful it started to attract the attention of then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and some of her political sidekicks. The authority started off as a nonpolitical entity with directors appointed by both Democratic and Republican officeholders and the governor.
Anytime an authority has the potential of handing out close to $580 million, it is bound to be looked upon as a powerful force that can be used for a number of reasons.
Clay Blair, former chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents, an individual deeply involved in efforts to encourage Kansas leaders to be more aggressive in attracting research-based industries, served as the first chairman of the KBA. He was extremely effective but resigned when it became apparent Sebelius and her Democratic cronies wanted to take control of the authority.
With Sebelius’ approval, Democratic members of KBA’s board — former Gov. John Carlin, former Kansas Congressman Dan Glickman, former state Rep. Ed McKechnie and, possibly, Sandra Lawrence — engaged in a phony, backhanded and shameful effort to get rid of Blair. CEO Thornton was one of the most aggressive individuals in trying to push Blair aside.
These individuals wanted to use the KBA as their checkbook and a way to strengthen their position in the state. In many ways, it was similar to Sebelius’ trying, unsuccessfully, to take control of the Kansas University Hospital board.
There were some very close to the situation who acknowledged the effort against Blair was wrong and politically motivated but claimed they couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about it. They had no courage or backbone.
During its first two years, KBA identified and recruited a number of companies and sold them on the benefits of moving to Kansas. Likewise, the KBA worked with existing Kansas companies helping them to expand their operations.
Today, these companies have a total of 3,500 to 4,000 employees.
A state investigator assigned to determine whether Blair had done anything wrong told this writer, “The persons calling for the investigation are the ones who should be investigated for wrongdoings and their motives, not Blair.”
All this is in the past. How about the present?
Several weeks ago, Sen. Wagle opened hearings about the KBA, its spending habits, high salaries and leadership.
For example, Thornton paid himself a salary of $265,000 last year, plus a bonus of $100,000 plus liberal fringe benefits. He and his wife, also a KBA employee, are paid a total close to $500,000.
His defenders claim he is not overpaid and that he runs a tight ship. These supporters are quick to point to two matters as evidence Thornton is doing a good job and deserves the high salary.
First, KBA Chairman Carlin recently was quoted as saying, “The authority’s dogged determination led to Kansas winning the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility.”
This is baloney!
Sure, KBA dollars were used to pay expenses for trips to Washington, dinners and cocktail parties, limos, etc., but it was the hard and effective work of the Kansas congressional delegation that deserves credit for securing the highly prized facility.
Sen. Pat Roberts was the leading force and, if the state hadn’t had the Pat Roberts building at Kansas State University to offer, free of charge, to the government to use during the transition of the Plum Island facility to Manhattan, NBAF would be located someplace else.
Carlin and other KBA cheerleaders also point to 1,195 new jobs they say were created by KBA investments. (Apparently the jobs created under Blair’s leadership don’t count.)
It would be interesting to know what these 1,195 jobs cost (considering the tens of millions KBA has handed out), over what period these jobs were created, how many have been for positions at KU and KSU and what private businesses have been brought to Kansas.
KBA is a novel and great legislative achievement. It is unfortunate, however, that partisan politics has entered the picture and that KBA leadership has not reflected credit on the authority.
Granted, it has given away millions upon millions of dollars, but this is pretty easy to do. It’s not hard work and such handouts are an easy and effective way to win friends and admirers — and to keep these recipients from raising any questions.
Some say it is wrong to ask questions about the KBA because it might cause the federal government to think about moving NBAF to another state. If there is a delay on the project, it will be due to the critical fiscal situation in the country, not because some are calling for more oversight of the KBA.
It is interesting that some state lawmakers don’t see any need for more or closer oversight of KBA. For example, Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, has praised both the KBA and Thornton, saying he has 100 percent confidence in Thornton.
Wagle’s hearings have focused new attention and concern about the KBA, and it obviously has touched some tender spots with Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, who called Wagle’s hearing a “witch hunt.” He claimed Gov. Brownback, and apparently Wagle, are “determined to undermine the Bioscience Authority and it couldn’t come at a worse time.”
It is believed Wagle plans to hold additional hearings. Also, it is believed she and others are concerned and disappointed it has taken Thornton and his associates so long to provide materials and information requested by the Senate committee. Some have wondered why Thornton has not been more prompt and forthcoming in providing the requested information.
Wagle has opened what appears to be a can of worms, and Thornton, Carlin and their supporters apparently would like to put the lid back on this situation.
At a time when the state is facing severe fiscal constraints, it is difficult to understand why some lawmakers are not applauding Wagle’s effort to make sure there is proper and sufficient oversight of how KBA, under the leadership of Thornton and Carlin, is using more than $500 million of taxpayers’ money.
— The writer of this column served on the original board of directors for KBA and resigned just prior to the end of his first three-year term, indicating he did not wish to be reappointed.