Topeka Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration on Wednesday pushed to take away from the Kansas Bioscience Authority control of bonding for the new federal biosecurity lab, saying it feared a Washington-style political attack.
Landon Fulmer, Brownback’s policy director, said the move was needed because of the “cloud” surrounding the KBA, which officials have said is under criminal investigation by the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office.
The House Appropriations Committee later Wednesday approved a bill that would remove the KBA from the bonding decision but stopped short of putting that responsibility solely under Brownback’s office. Instead, the committee recommended that the State Finance Council, which is chaired by the governor but also includes legislative leaders, have the final say-so after getting a recommendation from the administration.
Fulmer said politicians in Washington may try to use reports about the criminal investigation into the KBA as a way to smear Kansas’ selection as the location for the $650 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.
Fulmer, who served as legislative director for Brownback when he was a U.S. senator, said he has seen how politicians in Washington will use anything to further their own pursuits. He also noted the fight for NBAF, a top-level lab that will work on animal diseases and food security, was highly contested and that the project continues to face hurdles in congressional funding.
“We want to make sure we don’t provide ammunition,” to opponents of NBAF’s location in Manhattan, he said.
In winning NBAF, Kansas committed $105 million in matching bonds to help with construction and put that bonding responsibility under the KBA, which helped secure the project.
The KBA has been at the center of controversy in recent months. State officials, including Brownback, have said the agency is being investigated by Johnson County prosecutors. But no official has revealed the basis for the probe.
Brownback requested an extensive audit of KBA financial dealings. The KBA board agreed, but Brownback has said he fears the board will have too much input into the audit.
Recently, the KBA’s president and chief executive officer, Tom Thornton, resigned and took a job with the Cleveland Clinic.
KBA’s acting president and CEO, David Vranicar, told the Appropriations Committee that he had no problem with moving the bonding administration from the KBA.
But he told the committee that the KBA works closely with federal agencies on NBAF issues and cautioned legislators about making comments that may link whatever is being investigated with the NBAF project.
“They (federal officials) would be troubled if there was a perception that the KBA was not fulfilling its obligations,” on NBAF, he said.
Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, asked Fulmer if the bill was the first in a move by Brownback to take over projects from the KBA, which was created to use tax money to lure bioscience businesses to the state.
“The governor has no interest in taking over the KBA,” Fulmer said.
Ballard later said, “I think I’m justified in being skeptical.”
The measure will now go to the full House for consideration.