House Democrat offers cynical ‘hallelujah’ for bill touted by Kansas attorney general

Bill centralizes Kansas drug litigation, allocation of settlement dollars

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a candidate for governor in 2022, lauded passage by the Legislature of a bill directing use of opioid settlement money in the state. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a candidate for governor in 2022, lauded passage by the Legislature of a bill directing use of opioid settlement money in the state. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Legislature approved a bill Wednesday consolidating under direction of the state attorney general the complex litigation against opioid manufacturers and the process of allocating settlement dollars for treatment of addiction.

Consideration of the bill in the House was a politically sleepy event until Democratic Rep. John Carmichael plunged into a scorched-earth House floor speech claiming the legislation served interests of politicians looking for leverage to climb the ladder of elective office.

He directed much of his ire at Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is a candidate for the GOP nomination for governor in 2022. Schmidt had a role in shaping contents of House Bill 2079.

“Ah, the political season begins early this year,” Carmichael said. “ ’Hallelujah,’ says the attorney general, ‘my bill has finally landed upon the floor of the House of Representatives.’ You know, when you’re tired of being the attorney general, you want to get some good publicity going out the door as you try to run for governor.”

Carmichael denounced the core of the bill, which was negotiated by a conference committee of three House and three Senate members. The bill would unjustifiably inhibit the authority of cities and counties to pursue lawsuits against drug manufacturers in response to the addiction crisis, he said.

“Cities and counties have a right to hire attorneys to represent them,” Carmichael said.

Under the bill forwarded to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, municipalities couldn’t continue with opioid litigation in any court after Jan. 1, 2021, unless approved by the attorney general.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, a Republican, interjected when Carmichael’s commentary appeared on the verge of pivoting to candidates for attorney general. That list could include House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican sitting about 15 feet from Carmichael. Former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who lost the 2018 campaign for governor, is a declared GOP candidate for attorney general.

“Representative,” Ryckman said, “are we talking about the bill? Let’s get back to talking about the conference committee report.”

“Fine,” Carmichael continued, “because this bill substantially increases the power of the attorney general at the expense of counties and municipalities.”

Carmichael, a Wichita attorney, said Republican and Democratic attorneys general had undermined cities and counties in the past by seizing control of litigation for personal “political benefit and glory.”

“Then they settle these cases for 50 cents on the dollar,” he said. “That’s what this legislation is about.”

Before the House approved the bill 78-42, Topeka Rep. Fred Patton, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a negotiator on the bill, said the legislation wasn’t developed to serve aspirations of a certain officeholder or future officeholder. The bill had cleared the Senate on a vote of 39-0.

“It was to do what we thought was in the best interests of Kansas,” Patton said.

Schmidt, who recommended the opioid litigation and treatment language in the bill, issued a statement that said the measure would establish a process for administering funds recovered from opioid litigation and make addiction treatment and prevention the priority when spending the money.

The attorney general’s office said contents of the bill resulted from “extensive discussion with other affected parties, particularly cities and counties.” It would authorize a grant program for benefit of local governments and service providers. A board would review applications and distribute proceeds.

“I appreciate the Legislature taking these concrete and meaningful steps to establish the framework for helping Kansans recover from the epidemic of opioid addiction,” Schmidt said.

“The measure that has been approved will ensure that funds we recover from defendants whose conduct contributed to the opioid epidemic will be used to assist local communities and to squarely address addiction and substance abuse,” he said.

The attorney general’s office said the legislation was a balance between interests of local governments that hired their own legal counsel and must pay attorney fees and other local governments that did not take on the expense of litigating against drug manufacturers. Kansas has so far obtained judgments ordering $4.8 million be paid to settle opioid claims.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.