Kansas senator alleges GOP complicit in damaging politics of big-businesses lobby groups

Kansas Chamber, AFP reject Sen. Steffen’s analysis, but he earns a Democrat’s praise

By: - September 6, 2023 2:20 pm
The Kansas Board of Healing Arts issued a response to the "unprecedented" letter on treatment of COVID-19 patients sent to about 250 health care providers by Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican who has advocated off-label use of ivermectin in the pandemic. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Republican Sen. Mark Steffen of Hutchinson issued a critique on social media denouncing the big-business lobbying by the Kansas Chamber and Americans for Prosperity, compounded by the GOP-led Legislature that thwarted interests of dedicated conservatives such as himself. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

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 a 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.”

Alan Cobb, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Chamber, said the business organization wants the 2021 Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly to embrace a series of reforms to help the economy survive and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Alan Cobb, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Chamber, said Sen. Mark Steffan, R-Hutchinson, engaged in “ego-driven games and antics” while serving in the Legislature and was wrong to condemn the pro-business voice of the Kansas Chamber. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

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.”

Rep. Michael Murphy, a two-term Republican from Sylvia, filed as a candidate for the Senate seat held by GOP Sen. Mark Steffen of Hutchinson. Murphy said Steffen told him that he wouldn’t seek reelection to a second term in the Senate in 2024. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

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.”

Rep. Jason Probst
Democratic Rep. Jason Probst of Hutchinson said he loathed the Statehouse conduct of Republican Sen. Mark Steffen, but welcomed Steffen’s belief the GOP was culpable for the oversized influence of big business interests in the Legislature. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

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.”

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Tim Carpenter
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.