No Kansas hayseed

Call John Ballou a visionary and he’ll rock back on his kitchen chair as a smile breaks apart his poker-face expression. He hadn’t heard that one.

But the three-term Republican state representative from Gardner, Kan., doesn’t mind the label. Sure, it counteracts that right-wing, conservative tag he says the press gave him early on in his political life. But he’s not denying he’s a conservative when it comes to social issues. The key word is “issues,” he says, more than philosophy.

“I’m a voice for my district (43rd), a voice for Johnson County, and a voice for the state of Kansas,” Ballou says, noting that those three “voices” are ranked in order of political priority. Sometimes covering all three is a given. Take, for example, the Oz project and renewing the bistate tax.

California dreamer Robert Kory learned pretty fast that Ballou is no Kansas hayseed. Along with many of his fellow legislators, Ballou pushed for assurances from the Oz developer that taxpapers wouldn’t step into a proverbial cow pie when it came to the proposed $763 million theme park in Johnson County. Before Ballou signed on in support of the project, he wanted to make sure the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant site would be rid of hazardous waste and that the De Soto School District would get its due of property taxes. To help make sure those prerequisites came about, the Kansas Development Finance Authority (KDFA) would oversee the land transfer and would issue bonds. That being done, and making sure some park land was set aside on the 9,000 acres, Ballou then became an Oz supporter. But apparently Kory got tired of the state’s snail-pace approval process.

Last month the Oz folks managed to tee off just about the entire Kansas Legislature when they attempted to use the town of De Soto as a catapult to get Oz in the fast lane. Legislation to let the town of 3,300 issue almost $250 million in bonds and set the stage for annexation of the Sunflower site popped up before a House committee. The idea went over like Seaboard Corp.’s wanting to open a corporate hog farm along the 119th Street corridor. Pushing De Soto as major financial player cut the KDFA out of the regulatory and financing mix and raised the specter of a little town too giddy with being on the varsity team to realize it was also part of the game in moving Oz away from the state’s scrutiny.

“Oz went to De Soto and offered a seat at the table,” says Ballou, “but the county would ask for input anyway. De Soto would have every opportunity to sit at the table and they can annex the land.” Ballou is convinced Kory engineered the plan and says he has a fax sent to him of “scribbled notes” written to De Soto Mayor Steve Prudden, in Kory’s handwriting, proposing as much. Ballou thinks Kory was angling for additional tax subsidies along the lines of the 30-year property tax exemption that the NASCAR track received in Wyandotte County. Ballou says KDFA officials have told him that “Oz is about out of money.” That point aside, accepting the “new” deal with De Soto, Ballou says, “would have wiped out everything they (Oz) had agreed upon”: KDFA authority to issue bonds, property taxes to the De Soto school district, and a prepaid financial instrument to ensure a site cleanup. “It would have cut out all state oversight,” Ballou emphasizes.

Although the De Soto proposal vanished from the statehouse under the hot breath of the legislators’ anger, Ballou felt that wasn’t enough. Early this month he introduced a “repeal amendment” to withdraw the legislation that allows the KDFA to issue bonds for Oz. Despite the legislature’s discontent over the project, Ballou’s amendment isn’t given much chance for passage. But Ballou’s move did get Kory’s attention.

This week Kory has been making the rounds in Topeka and Johnson County. He talked with Ballou. “I told him, ‘If you want my support, you have to earn it,'” says Ballou. That apparently hasn’t happened. After a House vote of no confidence this week, Ballou says he intends to push the repeal amendment in the Senate. “He (Kory) didn’t change my mind.” As for those scribbled notes: Ballou says Kory admitted they were his and that they “weren’t meant to go anywhere or do anything.” When asked, Ballou didn’t say whether he lifted his feet at Kory’s answer.

Even as the Oz project toys with entering oblivion, neither Ballou nor the Kansas legislature have a “plan B” for the Sunflower site. “The GSA (General Service Administration) holds all the cards,” says Ballou. “They want to do the whole thing (land transfer) in one parcel.”

Apparently off the legislative radar screen is converting the Sunflower land into a regional, low-impact camping, recreational, and wildlife park with the potential of being a more sustainable (and cheaper) tourist destination than a theme park. Kansas sorely needs large scale natural park land, particularly in fast-growing Johnson County. A number of letters to the editor in area newspapers have bought up such an idea, but local officeholders seem completely enamored with development. “Local developers are interested if it’s broken up,” Ballou says of the 9,000-acre parcel. “That will be the hottest property on the market within 10 years.”

Charles Benjamin, executive director of the Kansas Natural Resource Council, doesn’t think the regional park idea is out of the realm of possibility, but “we must get pass this Oz thing,” he says. “It’s hard to discuss other options with this theme park on the table.

“The issue for us is that the (Sunflower) land is more heavily contaminated than the Oz people have led on.”

Although Ballou has yet to embrace any sort of natural park idea for Sunflower, he’s warmed some environmentalists’ hearts another way. He recently introduced legislation that gives area voters the option of passing a sales tax for mass transit. Ballou describes it as amending the Area Transportation Authority compact for a regional approach in developing commuter rail. “He sincerely cares about mass transportation,” says Steve Baru, a stockbroker and chair of the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club. “He knows it’s not going to happen without help from the government.”

Originally, Ballou was going to introduce a mass transit funding amendment to the bistate legislation dealing with renewing the current bistate tax used to renovate Union Station, which is now before both the Missouri and Kansas legislatures. That legislation, to expire in two years, has been modified to include “sports” facilities as part of its cultural definition in how the tax money would be spent. Although one person familiar with the legislature said Ballou was “talked out” of amending the bistate legislation by Peter Levi, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, Levi says, “I wouldn’t categorize it as ‘talking him out of it.’ We discussed it, and I suggested there was already legislation to do that (mass transit funding) on the books.”

Levi and Ballou don’t think Ballou’s original sales tax amendment for mass transit would have affected needed voter approval in renewing the bistate tax to include sports facilities’ funding once that empowering legislation passes. Political logic points the other way. Levi has continually shown disinterest — as has most of the Kansas City area business community — for fixed rail mass transportation for metro KC. Having Ballou attach a mass transit amendment to the bistate renewal legislation would have complicated the bistate voter renewal campaign, considering the theme for approval likely will be keeping the Chiefs and Royals in town by passing the tax. Ballou admits that many voters tell him they are against using the bistate tax to fund sports facilities, and he says, “I don’t see bistate for building things.” Ballou says he’s against “buying Johnson County off” by building a sports arena in Kansas to win support of funding the stadium complex in Jackson County, Mo.

Public interest in mass transit is evident across the metropolitan area. Ballou says a survey early this year of his district constituents showed 80 percent favoring a bistate tax for commuter rail. He says the area’s existing heavy rail network makes “commuter rail cheaper than anywhere in the United States.”

Ballou knows his mass transit bill has little chance of passage this year. But he calls it “breaking ground, sending a message to Missouri.” In Ballou’s political life, “Commuter rail is the main reason I filed for re-election.”

Contact Bruce Rodgers at 816-218-6776 or bruce.rodgers@pitch.com.

Kansas state Rep. John Ballou of Gardner is flexing his political muscle when it comes to the Oz project and the bistate tax.

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