The Kansas Bioscience Authority is on death watch, which is not a good situation for an entity whose mission is to invest in the future.
Seven of 13 staff members lost their jobs last month. President and CEO Duane Cantrell said the authority would suspend plans for new investments.
After several years of disappointing allocations from the Kansas Legislature, Gov. Sam Brownback’s decision last year to withhold $22 million from the KBA to help him balance the state budget was the final straw.
The plan appears to be to limp along until the Legislature reconvenes in January. But that isn’t likely to solve the problem.
Unwilling to kill the authority in the face of strong support from business and education leaders, lawmakers’ fallback strategy is to starve it to death.
The KBA’s plight is yet another sign of disinvestment in Kansas, as the state pours its energy into remaining financially solvent while preserving devastating income tax cuts.
The once-lauded Kansas Bioscience Authority was the brainchild in 2004 of two prominent former Republican legislators — Kenny Wilk in the House and Nick Jordan in the Senate, who is now Brownback’s revenue secretary. In the more bipartisan climate of a decade ago, then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, enthusiastically signed on.
The idea was the state would provide seed money for the authority to recruit companies in the emerging bioscience industry. Taxes from those companies would be used to recruit even more businesses.
The KBA helped created a momentum surge that drew pharmaceutical, animal health and other medical-related industries to Kansas. It played a key role in bringing the coveted National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to Manhattan, and helped the University of Kansas Cancer Center gain National Cancer Institute designation.
Early on, the authority partnered with universities to recruit and support the work of top scientists. It helped Kansas State University and the University of Kansas stake out respective claims to expertise in animal health sciences and pharmaceutical research.
The KBA had its troubles, too. A 2012 audit showed that a former president, Tom Thornton, had misspent funds and destroyed public records.
By that time, the authority was already weakened. The Legislature’s commitment to funding it adequately didn’t survive the recession.
Conservative lawmakers began questioning high salaries and wining and dining of executives the authority was trying to recruit. Brownback seemed antagonistic from the time he came into office.
Later in 2012, the Legislature passed, and Brownback signed, the deep income tax cuts that have crippled the state fiscally. Kansas no longer has money to invest in biosciences, even though the payoffs are good-paying jobs and a more educated population.
The state’s entire economic development plan at the moment appears to be income tax exemptions for certain types of businesses. But entrepreneurs in up-and-coming industries such as medical research need venture capital funds, not marginal tax breaks.
In their quest to starve the Kansas Bioscience Authority, political leaders are cutting off nutrition to the companies and jobs of the future.