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Topeka Capital-Journal (Kansas)

The House engaged in extraordinary debate Friday before overwhelmingly rejecting a bill that would deliver a property tax exemption for fitness clubs statewide sought by a Wichita businessman who donated liberally to dozens of lawmakers.

The heart of the matter is a measure pushed in the 2013 and 2014 sessions by Genesis Health Clubs president Rodney Steven, who sprinkled $67,000 into campaign accounts of about 70 members in the Legislature. The Senate passed the bill in each session, but the House refused to bend.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who accepted $1,000 from Steven, proposed the House simply concur with the Senate's bill. If 63 votes existed in the House, Steven's bill would be sent to Gov. Sam Brownback.

"We have an inequity on tax policy," said Hawkins, who praised a for-profit health facility in Topeka for helping him lose 30 pounds.

Hawkins agreed with Steven's assertion Kansas' nonprofit fitness organizations, including YWCA and YMCA facilities, enjoy tax breaks that place commercial businesses at a disadvantage.

His request was rejected on a vote of 16-108, but not before Rep. John Edmonds, R-Great Bend, stood on the House floor and exposed 18 senators who accepted contributions from Steven and voted for his bill. It passed the Senate with 23 votes, but Edmonds read off the home county - not the name - of senators accepting donations and the amount accepted by each.

"While it must be admitted that correlation is not the same as causation," Edmonds said, "it must be agreed these 18 senators provided 86 percent of the vote necessary to adopt the Genesis amendment. That is unseemly and highly suggestive, to say the least."

Edmonds, who also accepted a $500 contribution from Steven in December, said he became aware during the current session the Wichita fitness club operator might engage in political retaliation against lawmakers who "failed to behave in accordance with his expectations."

"I am sure Mr. Steven is a wealthy and powerful man, but I do not believe the day has come when this House is required to knuckle under to the demands of any individual - no matter how rich or powerful," Edmonds said.

The speech inspired Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, a Palco Republican who also took $500 from Steven, to express disappointment with commentary from Edmonds.

"I take offense to the fact he would say some of our colleagues in the Senate are bought and paid for," he told House members. "And you should, too."

 

May 3, 2014

 

 
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