Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

Kansas Republican slams GOP complicity in damaging politics of big-businesses lobby groups

TOPEKA — State Sen. Mark Steffen declared special-interest organizations with a big-business agenda controlled the Kansas Legislature and accused so-called establishment Republicans of being complicit in corrupted political system detrimental to many Kansans.

Steffen, the Hutchinson-area Republican who took out a GOP incumbent senator in 2020, took to social media to share insight drawn from three legislative sessions representing District 34. He said the experience laid bare shortcomings of Gov. Laura Kelly and “woke” liberals as well as a “dirty secret” the Capitol was under the spell of Republican-aligned special interests that included the Kansas Chamber, Americans for Prosperity and Kansas Hospital Association.

“The secret, the dirty secret behind the scenes, is that our Legislature is completely controlled by big-business, special-interest groups,” Steffen said in a Facebook post. “They do it to the detriment of the people of Kansas. They leverage their own capital to create an unlevel tax playing field. They shove as many of their costs onto the people of Kansas via taxes and tax credits.”

Steffen went on to identify AFP as “one the greatest offenders and frauds” in Kansas politics. The conservative, libertarian advocacy group was founded in 2004 and financed by Charles Koch and the late David Koch. AFP helped fuel the Tea Party movement and has opposed global warming legislation, the Affordable Care Act, expansion of Medicaid, public-sector unions and raising the federal minimum wage.

“They are a globalist entity funded by the Koch brothers. I love the Koch brothers and I love capitalism, but I don’t love globalism. I am an America-first person. We have AFP undermining people such as myself and other good conservatives who care about the people who care about the constitution,” Steffen said.

He vowed to dedicate himself to revealing the damaging relationship “between big government and big business” that was “led by the Republican establishment.”

Not so fast

Elizabeth Patton, the Kansas director of Americans for Prosperity, said the organization worked in the Statehouse to remove bureaucratic and regulatory barriers so business operators of all sizes could advance the American dream.

“These are real policies that impact real Kansans,” she said. “Senator Steffen fails to understand the difference between a free-market, liberty-minded conservative and a big-government populist. Unfortunately, he continually seems to seek control and has an inability to work with like-minded people who sometimes disagree or have a reasonable discussion. These things would make anyone, regardless of party or principle, completely ineffective.”

Steffen, who challenged a series of public health initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic, was punished by Senate President Ty Masterson for initially voting with Democrats against an override of Kelly’s veto of a new congressional redistricting map designed to help Republican candidates and weaken incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids. Masterson stripped Steffen of membership on the Senate tax committee.

The Kansas Hospital Association didn’t respond to a request for comment on Steffen’s assertions.

Kansas Chamber president Alan Cobb defended the business organization’s record of striving in the Capitol to seek lower tax rates for all Kansans and to support elected leaders who believed in the country’s free-enterprise system and the role of businesses in developing a vibrant economy. The Kansas Chamber operates a political action committee that leverages support for conservative candidates for the Legislature and other elected offices.

“During the last three years,” Cobb said, “Senator Steffen became known for ego-driven games and antics while in the Kansas Legislature. He knows Bob Fee, who is running for his Senate seat in 2024 will beat him, so he is trying to change the narrative.”

Steffen out in 2024?

Steffen, who would be up for reelection in 2024, apparently disclosed to other Republicans he wouldn’t seek a second term. That prompted filing by two candidates for the GOP nomination for Steffen’s seat in the Senate.

Fee, president of an insurance company in Hutchinson, said the state faced many challenges but “too often political games get in the way of conservative results.”

In his campaign announcement, Fee said Topeka needed leaders capable of halting Democrats’ agenda that “hurt our small businesses and Kansas values.” He didn’t mention Steffen in his news statement.

State Rep. Michael Murphy, a two-term Republican from Sylvia, also filed for Steffen’s seat. He said Steffen informed him several weeks ago that he didn’t plan to seek reelection next year.

“After prayer and consideration the decision was made to file,” Murphy said. “While passing good legislation is important, stopping bad legislation is perhaps even more important. Our district deserves solid Christian conservative representation in Topeka. I have delivered that as a representative and will in the Senate.”

Welcome aboard

Democratic state Rep. Jason Probst, of Hutchinson, said he welcomed Steffen’s commentary on Facebook about the outsized role of business interests in statehouse politics. He said Steffen finally warmed to the idea Republicans holding two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate were “not doing a very good job.”

“He’s now saying the same things I’ve been saying for over 10 years. People with a lot of money, organizations with a lot of money, big business, the biggest in the state, have way too much influence in the state Legislature. They largely get what they want and they helped elect people like Mark Steffen. They put money into his race and made sure that the previous Republican, who everyone thought wasn’t Republican enough, should be replaced by a more Republican Republican,” Probst said.

In the 2020 primary election, Steffen defeated incumbent GOP Sen. Ed Berger of Hutchinson. Steffen cast Berger as a moderate who was out of step with his constituents. Steffen won with 57.5% of the vote to Berger’s 42.5%.

Probst said he could offer a laundry list of reasons to dislike the way Steffen conducted himself in the Senate, but was surprised Steffen echoed his own sentiments.

“While Steffen makes a few half-hearted attempts to lay the blame at the feet of Kansas Democrats and Gov. Laura Kelly, it’s clear that he knows the truth and he says as much. The richest businesses largely get what they want in Topeka and the cost of what they want is borne out by Kansas taxpayers. It’s on this we agree,” Probst said.

He said property taxes in communities throughout the state increased to offset reductions in corporate income tax rates and due to other business tax giveaways championed by special-interest groups that flex their muscle in every election cycle.

“Steffen’s assertion that somehow voting for this moving target of what a ‘good’ or ‘true’ Republican or conservative is is as much a warning as it is a joke,” Probst said. “In 2020, he was the true conservative that big business loved. Now, not so much.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Kansas awards $2 million unplanned-pregnancy contract to group moored in anti-abortion politics

TOPEKA — Kansas awarded a $2 million contract to start a state program aimed at influencing women with unplanned pregnancies to give birth and to accept guidance of a new nonprofit organization directed by some of the state’s most vocal and dedicated opponents of abortion rights.

State Treasurer Steven Johnson, a former Republican member of the Kansas House, was given responsibility by the 2023 Legislature for choosing an entity to launch a statewide public awareness program steering women away from abortion clinics and to provide services useful in carrying a pregnancy to full term. On Tuesday, he confirmed the deal was signed last month and became effective Aug. 23. It allowed the organization to receive a $50,000 cash advance as start-up capital.

The Alternatives to Abortion bill was vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly, but the GOP-controlled House and Senate overrode the governor.

Johnson selected the Kansas Pregnancy Care Network headquartered in Mission and founded June 30. The nonprofit’s directors include former state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, former U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp and Vicki Tiahrt, the wife of former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt. State documents indicated Huelskamp, who served in the Kansas Senate prior to Congress, was named president of Kansas Pregnancy Care Network.

Another director is Ron Kelsey, the president of Planned Parenthood Exposed who claimed the 2022 defeat of the proposed Kansas Constitutional amendment designed to restrict abortion rights could lead to an annual increase of 100,000 abortions in Kansas. His wife, Donna, is executive director of Kansas City Pregnancy Clinic, which operates in Kansas City, Kansas, and provides services the Legislature was targeting with the $2 million.

“I am pleased that a group of Kansans has organized in response to our request for proposals and submitted the successful bid,” Johnson said.

Based on Texas model

Johnson said Kansas Pregnancy Care Network was the only Kansas-based entity to submit a qualified bid to the Kansas Department of Administration. Other bidders were Real Alternatives of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Human Condition, of Plano, Texas; and Life Alliance Kansas, of Lawrence.

The state treasurer said the Kansas nonprofit landing the contract would collaborate with the Texas Pregnancy Care Network, which was financed through the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

In Texas, the program provided women assistance so they could “feel supported and confident in choosing childbirth.” The network in Texas sought to engage with pregnancy support centers, maternity residences, social service agencies and adoption centers to deliver “life-affirming” aid to women and to actively discourage abortion.

“KPCN’s ability to draw on the experience of their affiliated organization in Texas will allow them to hit the ground running in implementing this program as the Legislature intended, serving women facing the difficulties of an unplanned pregnancy,” Johnson said.

State law mandates the Kansas organization submit a report on their activities to the Legislature and Johnson by June 30, 2024.

Transparency ‘crucial’

Pilcher-Cook, who served in the Legislature from 2005 to 2020, said the $2 million would bring to the forefront a network of people with a history of dedicating time and passion to women with unplanned pregnancies. She said women in Kansas deserved the counsel of “trustworthy” organizations.

“It is an honor to work with the state treasurer’s office to support and enhance the efforts of Kansas pregnancy resource centers to empower a woman to welcome her child into the world,” Pilcher-Cook said. “It will be crucial to provide transparency, while ensuring the essential care is provided for these vulnerable women and families.”

Earlier this year, the Kansas governor vetoed a budget provision that earmarked $2 million in the current state budget to an anti-abortion contractor. Kelly said she didn’t believe oversight of a pregnancy program fell within duties of the state’s elected treasurer and expressed concern the Legislature was standing up an organization that would get involved with “largely unregulated pregnancy resource centers.”

“This is not an evidence-based approach or even an effective method for preventing unplanned pregnancies,” Kelly said.

The Legislature voted to override the Democratic governor with the required two-thirds majorities on votes of 29-11 in the Senate and 86-38 in the House.

The GOP-dominated Legislature crafted the legislation after Kansas voters rejected in August 2022 the proposed amendment to the Constitution that would have made it easier for lawmakers to restrict access to abortion.

Supporters of the amendment had sought to nullify a decision by the Kansas Supreme Court identifying a foundational constitutional right to bodily autonomy, which included the right of a woman to terminate or continue a pregnancy. Prior to that statewide vote, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Roe v. Wade decision establishing the nationwide right to abortion.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

‘You’re an a--hole, police chief’: Kansas newspaper owner defiant in video of home invasion

TOPEKA — Marion County Record co-owner Joan Meyer leaned into her walker and stood up to at least six law enforcement personnel executing a search warrant in her living room during a bizarre series of legally questionable raids of her residence, the newspaper’s office and a city council member’s home.

Meyer, 98, died of cardiac arrest the day after officers and deputies seized electronic devices Aug. 11 from her house despite her protests. She had demanded the uniformed officers leave the home she shared with her son, Marion County Record publisher Eric Meyer.

Video evidence released Monday by the Marion County Record showed the search party included Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, who wielded a freshly signed warrant issued by Magistrate Judge Laura Viar. It was based on the theory someone at the Marion County Record engaged in a prohibited search of a public state database documenting status of driver’s licenses issued in Kansas. Numerous First Amendment advocates contend the reporter did nothing illegal.

“Don’t you touch any of that stuff,” Joan Meyer said on the video. “This is my house.”

An unidentified law enforcement officer — city police and county sheriff’s deputies were present — said they would soon depart. The officers were in her home for nearly two hours.

“You’re an ***hole, police chief,” she said. “You’re the chief? Oh, God. Get out of my house. Stand outside. What’s he doing over there going through the papers?”

“How many computers do you have the house?” an officer inquired.

“I’m not going to tell you,” Joan Meyer said. “Get out of my way. I want to see what they’re doing. What are you doing? Those are personal papers.”

The officer said they were interested in computers and other devices that might have been linked to an alleged identity theft crime.

“You people,” she said.

The video of Joan Meyer’s living room occupied by law enforcement officers abruptly ended when officers terminated her internet connection.

The memorial service was Saturday for Joan Meyer, who was eulogized by the Rev. Ron DeVore as the epitome of someone who understood living in a small community didn’t have to equate to having a small mind. The lifelong resident of Marion filled the newspaper’s job of community news editor for decades, working much of that time with her husband, Bill. She also wrote a weekly column for readers of the Record.

Eric Meyer has said the police intrusion into his mother’s home was a factor in her death. The coroner’s report listed “anxiety and anger she experienced” as a contributing cause of her death, the newspaper reported.

He said his mother predicted she wouldn’t live long enough to see those responsible for the raid held accountable.

On the surface, the investigation orchestrated by Marion police and the county attorney centered on whether a Record reporter broke state law by verifying information on a Kansas Department of Revenue website indicating local restaurant owner Kari Newell had lost the right to drive after receiving a DUI in 2008. Newell has sought a liquor license issued through the state.

On Wednesday, Marion County Attorney Joel Ensey withdrew the search warrant. He said there was “insufficient evidence” to justify seizure of computers and other materials from the newspaper. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation was drawn into the controversy.

Bernie Rhodes, an attorney from Kansas City, Missouri, retained by the newspaper, subsequently said a review of the probable cause affidavits signed by the magistrate judge and the police chief fell short of providing evidence necessitating the raids. Kansas motor vehicle records are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.

A spokesman for the Kansas Department of Revenue said it is legal to access driver’s license information on the agency’s website, the Associated Press reported.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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