Pro-business lobby groups wielding big influence in Legislature, Democrats say

? Last month, a bill that radically overhauled the way public schools in Kansas are funded swept through the Legislature with lightning speed, despite the fact that nearly every school district in Kansas, as well as all of the associations representing teachers, school boards and administrators opposed it.

Similarly, bills that would greatly reduce the influence of unions representing teachers and other public employee unions remain alive in the Legislature, despite strong opposition from teachers and most other individuals who would be affected by them.

And another bill that would have extended health care coverage through the state Medicaid system to an estimated 180,000 uninsured Kansans appears likely to go nowhere, despite support for it from Kansas hospitals, the state medical society and virtually the entire health care industry in Kansas.

In case after case, many Statehouse observers have noted, the fate of major pieces of legislation this year has depended on one thing: the support or opposition it receives from a small number of pro-business lobby groups led by the Kansas Chamber, Americans for Prosperity, and the conservative think tank Kansas Policy Institute.

“That’s basically David and Charles Koch that run our state Legislature,” said Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which heard and passed the anti-union legislation. “They drive the legislative agenda up here when it comes to tax and commerce policy.”

Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch are co-owners of Wichita-based Koch Industries, one of the Kansas Chamber’s “cornerstone members.” They also founded Americans for Prosperity, a nationwide network of groups that advocate for pro-business, free-market policies.

Kansas Policy Institute is a think tank and lobbying organization that is part of the State Policy Network and the American Legislative Exchange Council, both of which are funded by the Koch brothers.

Some conservatives dispute the idea that those groups are driving the Legislature. Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, argues that in some cases, it’s the other way around.

“We’re not doing it because the Kansas Chamber told us to,” Schwab said. “We’re doing it because we believe it’s the appropriate way to govern, and the Kansas Chamber just happens to agree with us.”

School finance overhaul

The school finance overhaul was perhaps the most significant and visible example of a bill that appeared, based on committee testimony, to have no popular support outside the small group of pro-business lobby groups.

The bill, which had only been unveiled to the public a few days earlier, was the subject of only one day of testimony on March 9.

Nearly every school district in the state, with the exceptions of Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley, either issued statements or submitted testimony opposing it. It was also opposed by the Kansas Association of School Boards, United School Administrators of Kansas, several district superintendents and other education groups.

According to the official minutes of the hearing, the only oral testimony in favor of the bill came from Mike O’Neal, president of the Kansas Chamber, and James Franko of Kansas Policy Institute.

The next day, it passed out of committee and was inserted into a Senate bill, a procedural move that allowed it to bypass the Senate’s committee process.

The following Friday, it passed the full House by a vote of 64-57 after leaders held the roll open for two hours in order to round up three absent Republican supporters. The following Monday, it came to the Senate for a straight up-or-down vote and passed, 25-14.

On Wednesday, March 25, barely two weeks after it had been unveiled, Gov. Sam Brownback signed it into law in a private ceremony in his office, with no advance notice to news media.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said she was surprised that the two business groups had more sway over the process than the education groups.

“I don’t know that we would question that, in the finance committee, we would have banks and insurance companies show up,” Francisco said. “So why would we be surprised if, on a school bill, we hear from school administrators, teachers and students? And then all of a sudden we have other people who come in and say, ‘we’re speaking for the general public.’ So there is this concern about who really represents the general public.”

Labor rights and Medicaid

The following week, a similar situation occurred when the Senate Commerce Committee took testimony on two bills: one to prohibit public agencies from collecting union dues through payroll deductions; and another to limit the scope of collective bargaining for all public employee unions and abolish the Public Employee Relations Board.

Dozens of union officials and individual state employees turned out to testify against the bills. The only proponents, other than the Republican sponsor of one of the bills and members of Gov. Sam Brownback’s cabinet, were three business groups: the Chamber; Americans for Prosperity; and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Americans for Prosperity is a nationwide organization that describes itself as “advancing every individual’s right to economic freedom and opportunity.” It supports cutting both taxes and government spending and was founded by Charles and David Koch, who run Wichita-based Koch Industries.

The union bills were combined into a single bill and quickly passed out of committee. And while the combined bill stalled on the floor of the Senate, it remains alive in another Senate committee and it’s expected to be debated and voted on again after lawmakers return April 29.

Likewise, the Medicaid expansion bill was the subject of high profile hearings that were packed with supporters representing the bulk of the Kansas health care industry.

Opponents included Kansas Policy Institute, a few individuals from Kansas, and two representatives from the national organization of Americans for Prosperity.

“We certainly plan to hold accountable every legislator who supports this misguided scheme and applaud those who choose to stand with Kansas taxpayers and patients instead,” said Akash Chougule, an AFP senior policy analyst from Washington, D.C.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, who had sponsored the bill, said he was shocked by the statement.

“I have never heard a conferee threaten members in testimony,” Ward said.

Source of influence

Ward said the source of the groups’ power is their ability to funnel money, either directly or indirectly, into election campaigns.

“It has to do with Citizens United and the expansion of third-party money that’s unidentified, non-transparent, but there’s oceans of it in Kansas,” Ward said. “And it has a huge effect on races that used to cost $20,000 to $30,000, and now are running $50,000 to $75,000 to run for the House. And when you raise the cost of campaigning, it gives that money much more influence.”

Schwab said he doesn’t believe those groups have as much influence over elections as Democrats allege.

“In the primaries last year, the Chamber didn’t do very well. A lot of people they targeted, people they didn’t want to help, like me, won by huge margins. What’s winning is the Republican message, when it’s a positive message.”

Schwab said Republican candidates campaigned last year on a platform that included overhauling school finance, resisting expansion of Medicaid and changing the way state government does business.

“Elections have consequences,” Schwab said, “and the consequence of this election was for the Republicans to come in and change the way Kansas has been doing business for years,” he said. “And so we’re doing that. And when we tee these bills up, the Chamber agrees with what Republicans are doing because we’re a pro-business, pro-market legislature.”