Mo. chamber group promotes biosciences in Kansas politics

Friday, August 1, 2008 | 7:38 p.m. CDT

TOPEKA, Kan. —  A Kansas City, Mo., group that promotes biosciences research - and, some critics say, human cloning - has become a significant financial player in Kansas politics in recent months.

The Life Sciences Fund of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce's political action committee contributed $95,000 to Kansas candidates and political groups from May 12 through July 24, according to a report the fund filed with the secretary of state's office. It filed a statement of organization, announcing its intent to become involved in Kansas politics, on April 21.

It raised nearly $727,000 from Jan. 1 through July 24, most of it from the chamber itself, and still had almost $449,000 left at the end of the period. The majority of the fund's spending was in Missouri.

"They certainly have more money at their disposal," said Carol Williams, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission. "They would be a significant player if they utilized that money in Kansas."

The Kansas City, Mo., chamber has long been interested in Kansas politics because about 40 percent of its members are from Johnson County, said Pam Whiting, a vice president.

And one of the chamber's stated goals is to promote biosciences research in the area - a goal Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and many legislators share. In 2004, Kansas set up a Bioscience Authority to help nurture the industry.

"We've certainly been pleased by the bioscience efforts in Kansas," Whiting said. "Kansas is doing some really marvelous things in bioscience, despite the controversy."

Attempts to promote biosciences in the Kansas City area have made embryonic stem cell research an issue and led to attempts by critics to restrict research or funding for it.

"That's an issue we're always watching," Whiting said.

The Kansas House approved anti-cloning measures in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2006 that would have limited funding for or restricted research with embryonic stem cells, but none survived the Senate because some lawmakers worried the bills could hurt research.

In 2006, Missouri voters narrowly adopted an amendment to their state's constitution to protect some research after advocates spent more than $30 million on their campaign.

"They're using the same dirty little tricks that they used in Missouri," said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, which backs anti-cloning legislation. "They're claiming that somehow people are stopping cures because they're stopping people from using human cloning."

Ryan Wright, executive director of the Kansas Traditional Republican Majority, said biosciences research is an issue because of "a vocal but rabid minority," led by anti-abortion groups. Wright said critics wrongly equate some research with cloning.

Wright's group was the biggest single beneficiary of the Life Science Fund's contributions in Kansas. It received $40,000 in contributions on July 10.

"Life sciences are an important economic issue for the Kansas City area, for Kansas," Wright said. "If trying to save someone's life and get them access to these treatments is a special agenda, then we're guilty."

In June, Louisiana enacted a law prohibiting the use of state funds or federal money channeled through the state for a process that's become the issue for many critics of embryonic stem cell research in Kansas and Missouri.

In that process, a researcher replaces the nucleus of a human egg with the nucleus from another cell. The altered egg starts dividing, eventually creating stem cells to be harvested.

Some scientists argue the process isn't cloning because what's created isn't implanted in the womb. But critics contend it is cloning because the process gives an egg, which begins with a half-set of chromosomes, a full set instead.

In the past, some Kansas legislators have pushed measures dealing with that process. The most active was Rep. Mary Pilcher Cook, a Shawnee Republican who lost her 2006 race for re-election.

This year, Cook is running for the Senate. In Tuesday's primary, she faces Sue Gamble, also from Shawnee, a State Board of Education member who has clashed with conservatives.

The Life Sciences Fund contributed $1,000, the legal maximum, to Gamble's campaign. The fund contributed an additional $44,000 to Senate and House candidates in Kansas, as well as $10,000 to the Bluestem Fund, Sebelius' PAC.

After receiving contributions from the fund, Wright's group spent more than $4,000 on printing and mailings in Cook's race, sponsoring fliers criticizing her past legislative record.


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