Politics & Government

Governor’s former chief of staff lobbying for tobacco company against proposed tax increase

Kensinger registered as a lobbyist for Reynolds American, the nation’s second largest tobacco company, six weeks later on Feb. 6, according to the Kansas secretary of state’s office.
Kensinger registered as a lobbyist for Reynolds American, the nation’s second largest tobacco company, six weeks later on Feb. 6, according to the Kansas secretary of state’s office. File photo

Gov. Sam Brownback's former chief of staff is lobbying on behalf of a tobacco company against a proposed tax increase on tobacco, a critical part of the governor's plan to balance the state's budget.

David Kensinger was part of a select group asked to give feedback on the proposed budget, including the tobacco tax increase, several weeks before it was unveiled to lawmakers.

Budget Director Shawn Sullivan sent Kensinger and others a draft of the budget Dec. 23 via a private e-mail address.

Kensinger registered as a lobbyist for Reynolds American, the nation’s second largest tobacco company, six weeks later on Feb. 6, according to the Kansas secretary of state’s office.

He would not answer questions about whether he began talks with Reynolds before or after Jan. 16, when the budget was made public, or whether his early knowledge of the tax proposal played any role in his ability to secure a contract.

Reynolds did not respond to multiple phone calls and e-mails.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said Kensinger’s lobbying contract with a tobacco firm raises questions.

“It seems to me that he had an inside advantage in getting this information where he could use that to obtain a client. Seems to me a real blatant conflict of interest,” Hensley said. “It’s like insider trading in the stock market.”

Sullivan’s use of private e-mail on a personal computer to send out the budget draft put the communication outside the bounds of the state’s open records law even though it dealt with official business. Hensley has been one of the main proponents of closing this loophole.

“It’s a perfect example of why private account e-mail should be subject to the open records act,” Hensley said. “It doesn’t pass the smell test, certainly.”

The governor’s office dismissed those concerns when asked if consulting a lobbyist on the budget presented a conflict of interest.

“As we have said before, the Governor consulted with a number of individuals — from private industry, education and government — throughout the course of budget discussions,” said Eileen Hawley, the governor’s director of communications, in an e-mail.

Tobacco tax

Kensinger’s relationship with Brownback dates to 1994, when he worked on a congressional campaign. He managed Brownback’s 2010 campaign for governor and served as his chief of staff until April 2012, when he left to become a lobbyist and a political consultant.

Some lawmakers say Kensinger continues to serve as Brownback’s de-facto chief of staff. Brownback downplayed the relationship in an October interview, saying he rarely consults Kensinger on policy.

A source with close ties to the administration said in January that Kensinger regularly sat in on meetings with the governor and other administration officials after leaving the administration. The source said Kensinger’s role in crafting policy has been overstated in the media, but that his intellect makes him a valued consultant on a broad range of issues.

Sullivan’s budget e-mail, which The Eagle obtained in January, has been held up by some lawmakers as evidence of Kensinger’s continued influence.

Hensley said Kensinger’s advocacy on behalf of Reynolds calls into question whether the administration is serious about pushing the tax on tobacco products.

Brownback proposed increasing state taxes on cigarettes to $2.29 a pack, up $1.50 from the current tax, and raising the wholesale tax on tobacco products from 10 percent to 25 percent.

The tax increase on cigarettes is projected to bring in $71.9 million for next fiscal year and the increase on wholesale tobacco is projected to bring in $8.9 million. Gov. Brownback also has recommended increasing taxes on alcohol and slowing the pace of scheduled income tax cuts.

Some lawmakers have said they dislike the tax proposal, but they are working on budgets that would need that revenue — or some other source — to be balanced.

The Senate has approved a budget that is projected to leave the state with $70.2 million at the end of fiscal 2016 if the entirety of the governor’s $211 million tax plan is passed.

If the $80.8 million from the tobacco tax is removed from the equation, the state would need to make cuts or approve a different revenue increase to fill the hole.

Kensinger’s role

Kensinger has not spoken out publicly against the tax increase. He has observed, but not testified, during hearings on the tobacco tax proposal before the Senate and House taxation committees.

However, about a half hour before the Senate hearing last week, he performed lines from the movie “Thank You for Smoking,” a satiric comedy about a tobacco lobbyist in Washington, outside the committee room as he chatted with Riley Scott, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society. That organization supports the proposed tax increase on public health grounds.

When approached, Kensinger confirmed that he was representing a client who opposed the tax but wouldn’t say anything more.

Kensinger and Scott were partners in the lobbying firm, Parallel Strategies, which became the subject of widespread media coverage after The Topeka Capital-Journal reported last April that the FBI was investigating Kensinger’s activities since his transition to lobbying.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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