KBA needs oversight

The Kansas Bioscience Authority is crucial to growing and diversifying the state’s economy. And its results have been impressive. But the KBA has seemed out of touch at times with the severe financial challenges facing the state and many citizens. And lawmakers are justified in wanting better oversight of its spending — though they need to be careful not to undermine KBA’s work.

Senate Commerce Committee members have been delving into KBA’s finances and have been troubled by what they have found. For example, at a time when most state employees have had their pay either frozen or reduced, KBA employees have received raises of 4 to 15 percent. In addition, KBA paid $206,520 in bonuses to 13 employees last year.

Thomas Thornton, the authority’s president and CEO, received a $100,000 bonus last year in addition to his base salary of $257,000 and a $7,500 car allowance.

Lawmakers also have questioned KBA spending on travel and entertainment and on its office building in Olathe. Meanwhile, some recipients of KBA grants, such as the Center of Innovation for Biomaterials in Orthopaedic Research at Wichita State University, contend that KBA hasn’t honored its funding commitments.

“The expenses are lavish, the dining is lavish, the salaries are lavish, the bonuses are lavish, and we’re here cutting budgets,” complained committee Chairwoman Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.

Wagle wants a legislative audit of KBA’s finances, which seems reasonable. The Commerce Committee also has sent a bill to the Senate floor to install the secretaries of commerce and revenue as the chairman and treasurer of the authority’s board.

KBA officials respond that their salaries are in line with market rates and that it is important to have highquality staff.

“We had to pay salaries to attract the talent and retain the talent to get the job done,” former Gov. John Carlin, KBA’s board chairman, told the Commerce Committee.

Carlin also defended KBA’s spending on travel and meetings, which totaled $85,068 last year — including $2,445 for limousine rentals. Such spending can be necessary to attract the type of people willing to make multimillion-dollar investments, he argued.

And KBA is getting an impressive return on its spending. According to the agency, the KBA committed $217 million to projects and spent $45.4 million through June 2010. Results include 1,195 new jobs, $212 million in capital investment and $86.6 million in new research funding.

Kansas shouldn’t do its bioscience initiative on the cheap. And the state doesn’t want to miss out on recruiting a large new business or research project by hamstringing KBA’s budget or creating undue controversy.

Still, KBA has seemed loose and arrogant in its spending, particularly when the state is cutting base aid to schools and funding for parolee supervision and other crucial services. Greater oversight is justified.