Barbara Shelly

Hubris and Brownback tax cuts killed the Kansas Bioscience Authority

Nick Jordan
Nick Jordan The Associated Press

The stormy life of the Kansas Bioscience Authority appears to be winding down.

Seven of the 13 full-time staff members were laid off last week, president and CEO Duane Cantrell said today. After several years of disappointing allocations from the Kansas Legislature, Gov. Sam Brownback’s decision last year to grab $22 million from the authority for budget-balancing purposes was the final straw.

The authority can no longer perform its mission and will not make any new investments, Cantrell told reporter Bryan Lowry. It looks like the plan is to limp along until the Legislature reconvenes in January. After that, who knows?

The once much-touted bioscience authority was the brainchild in 2004 of two prominent former Republican legislators — Kenny Wilk in the House and Nick Jordan in the Senate. Then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, enthusiastically signed on. It was a more bipartisan climate back then.

The idea was that the state would provide seed money for the authority to recruit companies in the emerging bioscience industry to Kansas. Taxes paid by those companies would be used to recruit even more businesses.

The authority scored some notable successes. It played a role in bringing the coveted National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to Manhattan, Kan. It was crucial to the Kansas-side development of the “animal health corridor,” the chain of veterinary businesses bookended by Manhattan and Columbia, Mo. It recruited top scientists and researchers to partner with Kansas businesses and universities. All told, there’s no question the authority played a role in bringing several thousand high-paying jobs to Kansas.

The KBA had its troubles, too. A 2012 audit showed that a former president, Tom Thornton, had misspent funds and destroyed public records.

The imminent death of the Kansas Bioscience Authority isn’t surprising. It wasn’t designed to withstand the pressures of both a fierce recession and the tax-cutting ethos of the Brownback administration.

When everyone else was cutting back, the authority was lavishly wining and dining executives as part of its recruiting efforts. It may have been a necessary part of doing business, but it rankled cost-conscious lawmakers.

And whatever Sam Brownback’s administration is about — I’m not sure even he knows the answer to that anymore — it is not about investment. With all of the state’s energy — and money — lost to an exorbitant tax-cutting scheme, old priorities such as bioscience and animal health development have fallen by the wayside. Recruiting may be taking place at some level, but it’s not front and center anymore.

In an odd little twist, one of the legislators who conceived the bioscience authority concept, Nick Jordan, is now Brownback’s director of revenue. Once a proud parent of bioscience investment, his job now is to defend the deep tax cuts that have essentially killed his offspring.

To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to bshelly@kcstar.com. On Twitter @bshelly.

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