Formed in 2004, the Kansas Bioscience Authority became the envy of other states.
Created to encourage growth in Kansas’ promising bioscience sector, the KBA used state and private-investment funds to recruit companies in the emerging bioscience industry. The state invested $232 million, mostly in grants and funds for research projects at state universities.
The strategy helped Kansas land various job-creating biosciences ventures, and notably the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility — a Manhattan-based operation that also promised to spur development of associated industries. The NBAF alone is expected to generate an estimated economic impact of $3.5 billion over 20 years, with hundreds of high-paying, permanent jobs.
But instead of supporting the innovative approach to job creation via the bioscience authority, Gov. Sam Brownback and his far-right, tea party allies took a page from the American Legislative Exchange Council doctrine they followed and ended the KBA.
ALEC, with support from the Koch brothers, writes model legislation designed to benefit major corporations. Government involvement in economic development doesn’t fit ALEC’s “free-market,” “limited-government” approach.
ALEC-influenced Kansas lawmakers called the KBA a poor investment of taxpayer dollars with no accountability. Legitimate questions over oversight did materialize, and rightly so, when a former KBA director was accused of misusing agency funds. But that wasn’t cause to dismiss the concept of state investment in job creation praised by business and civic leaders.
The ultraconservative-controlled Statehouse still killed the KBA in 2016, even as their own attempt to stimulate significant job growth through deep income-tax cuts failed. Their massive tax-cut policy only triggered painful cuts to core services — and, in doing so, accomplished another ALEC objective in shrinking state government.
To move forward, the state needs more Kansas-specific solutions, not cookie-cutter ideas from ALEC. Kansas often has to work harder to sell itself and should invest in ways to bring in agribusiness, health care, animal health, pharmaceutical and other bioscience companies that play to our strengths.
With that in mind, it was refreshing to hear Gov. Laura Kelly recently express interest in reviving efforts akin to the KBA to make Kansas more of a player in the world economy. While there’s much work to do in restoring state services, aggressive strategies to grow good jobs also must be a priority in the state Capitol.