Questions about a private company’s efforts to win a lucrative prison contract from former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration have lawmakers looking to close a loophole in state lobbying laws.
Current law requires legislative lobbyists to register with the state and report their expenses. But there are no such requirements for those peddling influence in the executive and judicial branches of state government.
On Wednesday, members of the Senate voted 40-0 to pass a bill that would change that.
“This is a bill that’s been a long time coming,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. He co-sponsored the bill with Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican.
Questions about former Brownback chief of staff-turned-lobbyist David Kensinger’s role in securing a Kansas Department of Corrections contract for private prison management company CoreCivic led to Hensley’s work on the bill.
Kensinger and two others registered as legislative lobbyists on Nov. 13, 2017. But Hensley said he believes their work on behalf of the Nashville, Tenn.,-based company started long before that.
“But we will never know … because they were lobbying the executive branch,” Hensley said.
Contacted Wednesday, Kensinger declined comment.
Pushed by Brownback and Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood, legislative leaders recently signed off on a $362 million contract with CoreCivic to replace the state’s aging maximum-security prison at Lansing with a new facility. The agency will operate the new prison under a 20-year lease-maintenance agreement with the company. At the end of the lease, the state will own the facility.
To guard against full-scale privatization, lawmakers are working on a separate bill that would prohibit the state from outsourcing operations of any prison without legislative approval.
A different deal involving the Brownback administration prompted Wagle’s interest in the lobbying reform bill.
“For me it was the Docking Building,” Wagle said.
In 2015 and 2016, the Brownback administration tried persuade lawmakers to OK a $20 million lease-purchase contract to demolish the state office building and build a new state power plant.
Wagle and other lawmakers objected when the administration moved agencies from the building to leased offices throughout Topeka that, she said, were “very expensive.”
Like the prison deal, Wagle said lawmakers didn’t know who was working behind the scenes on behalf of the businesses that stood to benefit from the project.
“There was no one who ever reported lobbying for the Docking building or the leases, or the contracts to tear down the building or move the power plant,” she said.
Although the legislature in 2016 blocked the administration from proceeding, Wagle doesn’t want lawmakers or the public kept in the dark again.
“We are a $16 billion operation when you include federal and state funds together,” she said referring to state government. “That’s a lot of money and a lot of contracts and I think we should know who is working with the administration on spending taxpayer dollars.”
The vote was unanimous, but some senators complained about language in the bill that increased the amount state officials could accept in gifts to $100 a year from $40. Legislative leaders said the change was needed to make limits on the value of gifts, hospitality and recreation consistent.
The bill must still pass the House and be signed by Gov. Jeff Colyer to become law.
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.