Rep. J.R. Claeys speaking in support of STAR bonds project in Salina during debate.
By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers voted to sustain a gubernatorial veto of an agricultural economic development project that turned into a high stakes game of chess potentially threatening other projects statewide.
The state House of Representatives voted 24-97 Wednesday to sustain a veto by Gov. Sam Brownback (R) of a budget proviso that would have prohibited STAR bonds in Wyandotte County, which would be used for the proposed American Royal project. The proviso and veto came amid ongoing debate over reform of the economic development bonds and were pushed by lawmakers questioning the use of the bonds. Brownback said that if his veto was overridden he would have stopped all STAR bonds projects in the state, including a $100 million redevelopment of downtown Salina. The state Senate had previously overridden the governor’s veto.
“This happened one day when we came in and found out that the governor was doing STAR bonds without legislative authority,” Rep. Scott Schwab (R-Olathe), who was pushing to override Brownback said.
The STAR bonds proviso was placed into the budget by the Senate – after being pushed by Sen. Jim Denning (R-Overland Park) – earlier this year as a stop on all STAR bonds statewide. A budget conference committee changed the language to Wyandotte County only – specifically citing the need to keep the Salina project going forward – which was approved by lawmakers. Brownback vetoed the proviso citing the need not to be specific about one county. Among the concerns cited by opponents is the loss of tax revenue for the state and the Department of Commerce holding approval power without legislative oversight.
The Wyandotte County project centers around bringing the American Royal agricultural center to the county from Missouri, which would include museums centered on agriculture. Wyandotte County already hosts the Kansas City Speedway and outlet stores which were created with STAR bonds. Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore (D-Kansas City) noted that the Speedway has been a success.
“Our STAR Bonds project is not just a home run it was a grand slam,” she said.
The move to sustain Brownback’s veto united moderate Republicans and Democrats, along with conservative Republicans in supporting the conservative Republican governor.
Brownback’s threat to cancel all STAR bonds and the impact on the Salina project focused heavily on the debate. Schwab said that he “won’t be manipulated or threatened.” He stressed that he wants to give lawmakers more power over the projects.
“I don’t want the governor to drive that ship,” Schwab said. “I want us to drive that ship.”
Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina), who worked to organize the coalition to sustain the veto, said that the debate was not about giving power to the governor, he said it was about the House versus the Senate. Claeys said that during a House Republican Caucus on Wednesday morning, the caucus was told that sustaining the veto would give the House a better hand in negotiating STAR bonds reform with the Senate. A reform bill was heard by the House Taxation Committee earlier on Wednesday. Lawmakers are grappling with a reform bill that would include changes to the process.
Claeys said that he did not want the Senate driving the process on STAR bonds.
“This is not about the governor being in the driver’s seat it is about the Senate being in the driver’s seat,” Claeys said.
Claeys talked about the $100 million redevelopment project in downtown Salina which would be stopped if STAR bonds was halted. The project – which is pending approval for STAR bonds by the Department of Commerce – including a hotel, bowling alley, ice skating rink, indoor recreation complex and residential components, along with upgrades to the city’s downtown infrastructure. The project which is being touted as a potential catalyst for economic growth in Salina’s downtown is being created by a group of private investors, along with a public component for the recreation center.
Claeys said that he felt that he was the one being threatened by the process going on in Topeka and the impact he saw on Salina.
“I prefer not being told to make good decisions about reform legislation with a gun to my head,” Claeys said. “There is a $100 million project in my community and that is a gun to my head.”
Rep. Diana Dierks (R-Salina) joined with Claeys to advocate the downtown Salina project. She noted the $100 million in private investment in the project. Dierks reiterated Claeys that she did did not want to put the Senate in charge.
Schwab said he believed that Brownback was threatening lawmakers in an attempt to get his way and said he was calling the governor’s bluff on the threat. He also told lawmakers that he did not see why there was a debate over Salina, when the veto dealt with Wyandotte County.
“There is nothing in here about Salina,” Schwab said.
House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Sharon Schwartz (R-Washington) told her colleagues that the American Royal project was centered on agriculture, which is the state’s top industry. She said this should be taken into account.
“It singles out agriculture. That is the number one industry in the state. To single out agriculture when we have an opportunity to single out agriculture is wrong,” she said. “We have an opportunity to educate the rest of the state about agriculture. About how we produce food for the rest of the world.
Wyandotte County lawmakers took to the floor to defend the American Royal project and the impact past projects have had on the state. House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs (D-Kansas City) noted that STAR bonds have helped his community and others around the state. Burroughs said that among the communities helped were Wichita, Topeka, Hutchinson and Johnson County.
Burroughs, who helped push STAR bonds two decades ago, said that lawmakers originally played a role in approving STAR bonds but then gave the authority to the Department of Commerce long term to speed up the process. He said that the bonds have helped bringing new developments to the state.
“Those of you who have seen STAR Bonds projects in your community have seen the benefits,” Burroughs said. “It is the best economic development program we have created.”