Kansas Bioscience Authority had bad session

Public schools and state agencies got hammered with budget cuts, but the Kansas Bioscience Authority arguably had the worst legislative session. It went from being the state’s golden child to having its work and integrity challenged by state Sen. Susan Wagle, RWichita, and Gov. Sam Brownback.

By the end of the session, the authority’s CEO had resigned, the Legislature had removed some of the KBA’s responsibilities, the KBA had hired forensic auditors to review its records, and the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office had begun a criminal investigation.

Nonetheless, KBA officials were positive and hopeful when they met last week with The Eagle editorial board.

Though some funding partners and others have asked about the legislative dispute and investigation, so far the controversy isn’t hurting KBA’s work, the officials said. Interim CEO David Vranicar said the KBA would be OK as long as the process reached a conclusion in a reasonable time.

However, the officials still don’t know what the district attorney’s investigation is about or how long it might take. KBA board chairman John Carlin, a former Kansas governor, said that KBA officials have turned over every stone they could find to see what the problem could be, and they couldn’t find anything.

The KBA’s problem with some lawmakers is easier to identify. It began over claims the KBA was reneging on its promised funding for the Center of Innovation for Biomaterials in Orthopaedic Research, a project of Wichita State University and Via Christi Health. Then when Wagle and the Senate Commerce Committee delved into authority finances, they found excessive travel and salary expenses. KBA officials still maintain that they never promised $20 million for CIBOR, though area lawmakers say that’s what they were told. The KBA contends that funding was always contingent on CIBOR meeting various performance milestones. Vranicar said that the authority would have been guilty of “malfeasance” if it had promised $20 million, given that CIBOR was starting from scratch when the KBA made its initial investment. Nonetheless, he said the KBA is excited about CIBOR and believes it has great potential.

Carlin attributed criticisms of the KBA by Brownback as part of a new administration finding its way. He is optimistic that the authority and the governor can work through their differences.

The officials are rightly proud of the KBA’s achievements since the Legislature created it in 2004. Through June 2010, it committed $217 million to projects and spent $45.4 million. Results include 1,195 new jobs, $212.6 million in capital investment and $86.6 million in new research funding, according to the authority. It played a key role in landing the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan.

However, as legislative scrutiny this past session showed, the KBA needs to tighten its oversight and spending. The results of the audit and criminal investigation may call for other action.

The KBA plays a crucial role in growing and diversifying the state’s economy. It needs to learn from this past session and get back to being golden.