Topeka A child advocacy group filed a lawsuit on Friday against Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, alleging that Schmidt's office has violated the state law that requires the disclosure of public records. The attorney general's office issued a statement that said it was following proper procedure.
Kansas Action for Children is seeking information on how much the state will receive as part of a December 2012 arbitration settlement in the landmark lawsuit against Big Tobacco companies.
Dollars from the tobacco lawsuit are used to fund various children's programs, and KAC has said the information is crucial for legislators to have to make budget decisions before the current wrap-up session ends.
On May 1, KAC filed a request under the Kansas Open Records Act for the information. On Monday, the attorney general's office responded that it had "begun the process of determining if we possess any public records meeting the terms of your request …"
But according to the lawsuit, on Wednesday, the attorney for the KAC had a conversation with the attorney handling the open records request at the attorney general's office. The attorney at the attorney general's office said the office had the records and was determining if questions concerning confidentiality and interests of other states in the tobacco lawsuit might have to be considered, according to the lawsuit.
The KAC alleges that the attorney general office's response to the initial request for records was false and misleading, and that the office needs to turn over the records.
"Upon information and belief, the requested records would detail revenues flowing to the State of Kansas based upon the arbitration settlement. The public interest in such a matter is paramount. Given the legislative calendar at the time of the request, Defendant’s stalling tactic is politically motivated and not based upon any legitimate KORA rationale," the lawsuit contends. KAC filed its petition in state district court in Shawnee Couny.
But Don Brown, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the office was continuing to work on KAC's open records request, and was still trying to determine if the additional accounting that had been requested can be lawfully released.
Brown added, "We would note that no final settlement agreement document has yet been signed, that at least 8 lawsuits challenging this settlement have been filed and remain pending, and that Kansas’ future annual tobacco payments remain undetermined because they result from sales and other events that have not yet occurred."
The Kansas Press Association urged the court to act quickly on the lawsuit. "These records are extremely time-sensitive and essential to the ongoing public debate at the Legislature on the budget. Frankly, the attorney general's office could cut off this debate fairly quickly by stepping forward immediately and releasing the information," the KPA said.
The legal battle is also part of another battle between KAC and Gov. Sam Brownback.
Brownback has proposed taking $9.5 million from an endowment fund set up to pay for early-childhood programs and transferring that to the state's all-purpose general fund to help balance the budget.
In his budget amendment, Brownback said the state recently received $68 million as part of its annual share of the lawsuit with tobacco companies. The amount was larger than expected, so the transfer of $9.5 million to the general fund, he said, will not affect any of the children's programs. Aside, from the annual share, KAC says there may be additional dollars from the arbitration settlement, and that is what the group is trying to discern.
The state has budgeted $55.8 million for children's programs from the tobacco settlement. But KAC argues that the difference between the annual tobacco settlement and what is budgeted for children's programs, which is $12 million, should be kept in what is called the Kansas Endowment for Youth.
The KEY fund was established in 1999 as a conduit for the state to receive money from the settlement with tobacco companies. Most of the funds are appropriated annually to a multitude of early-childhood education programs. A portion of the money was supposed to be held back over the years to ensure funding of those early-childhood programs once the tobacco settlement runs its course in 2025. KAC says that the endowment should contain $216 million at this point. It currently has a balance of $1.165 million.