Lawmakers schedule audits of animal inspections, wildfire suppression

Rep. John Barker, center, R-Abilene, chairs a meeting of the Legislative Post Audit Committee on Monday as committee staff prepare to distribute a new audit on the Department of Corrections' plans for building a new unit at the Lansing Correctional Facility.

? A legislative committee agreed Monday to authorize audits of the state’s animal inspection program and its wildfire suppression efforts and to put those audits in line ahead of two previously scheduled audits.

State Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, was one of three lawmakers who asked for an audit of the state’s animal facilities inspection program, which regulates dog and cat breeders, animal shelters, pet shops, research facilities, distributors and boarding facilities.

Francisco was a supporter of a bill this year that would have extended those inspections to pet animal foster homes. That bill passed the Senate, 34-5, but stalled in the House.

A 1990 audit of the program found numerous problems, including the fact that administrators had done a poor job of running the program, making Kansas a haven for so-called “puppy mills,” which are large-scale, for-profit commercial breeders that operate in conditions that many consider inhumane.

In 2002, the Legislative Post Audit Division did a follow-up audit and found that the program had been substantially improved but that many problems still existed, such as failure to conduct inspections in a timely manner and failure to levy sanctions against breeders for violating animal health regulations.

In 2011, Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order consolidating the Animal Health Department and the Livestock Commission as a division within the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, who serves on the Legislative Post Audit Committee, said Monday that auditing the program was a high priority for her.

“As many of you know, I’ve got four puppy-mill rescue dogs,” she said. “If they had not been rescued, they would have been eliminated for very silly reasons. They weren’t perfect enough for the top breeder-type dogs.”

The audit will examine whether the program has adequate policies and practices in place to ensure fair and consistent inspections; whether it is adequately funded, managed and staffed to carry out its duties; and the extent to which conditions in commercial breeding operations in Kansas have changed since the last audit in 2002.

Meanwhile, Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, asked for a Post Audit review of the state’s wildfire suppression efforts, in light of massive grass fires in central and western Kansas in recent years that have caused substantial property damage.

“The bottom line is, in the last two years we’ve lost in excess of $100 million in property (damage) in Kansas, and we’re spending maybe $300,000 of state money to try to prevent these losses,” Carmichael said. “And it’s not going to get better. The frequency of these fires is increasing. The intensity of these fires is increasing.”

By comparison, he said, the state of Oklahoma spends about $14 million a year on wildfire suppression.

The main question for auditors will be whether the state’s wildfire suppression system is adequately designed and has enough resources to effectively suppress wildfires. The audit will involve interviewing officials from other Midwestern states, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group and the Kansas State Firefighters Association.

The Post Audit Committee routinely receives requests to authorize new audits throughout the year. If the committee accepts a request, it typically sits idle for several months, waiting in line behind other scheduled audits.

However, if the panel believes a new request is important enough, it can vote to put that request at the front of the line by identifying some other scheduled audit to be pushed back, and that’s what the committee did Monday.

By pushing the animal facilities inspection audit and the wildfire suppression audit to the front of the line, the committee directed its auditing staff to delay scheduled audits dealing with highly technical aspects of the K-12 school finance formula.

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said that move was justified.

“I believe that those two audits are far more important to the quality of life in Kansas than those two K-12 audits,” he said.