A Senate Commerce committee is recommending that the Senate reject Gov. Laura Kelly’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce. A divided committee voted 6-5 to reject David Toland for the role after tense questioning during a two-day confirmation hearing. The full Senate will vote on whether to take the committee’s recommendation or confirm Toland in the next few weeks.
Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican, noted that the confirmation hearing was uncomfortable.
“I have been on this committee for 13 years and have served with four different secretaries,” she said. “And I, too have had grave concerns.”
“That did it for me,” she said.
Toland responded that he told a reporter that the night before during a phone call. What happened in the hallway following the first day of the hearing also raised the ire of Sen. Molly Baumgardner. Lynn said Baumgardner was bombarded by Toland supporters, questioning her motivations and accusing her of acting beneath her position by bringing up social media posts related to Toland’s work with the Allen County Hospital.
She said questioning the motives of other Senators isn’t allowed on the Senate floor.
“We received that yesterday as we left the hearing,” she said. “I assume the ad hominem attacks will continue.”
In addition to hearing from Toland’s supporters, Baumgardner said she received letters and phone calls from people in his hometown related to his nomination.
“Part of the concern I have is letters and phone calls where folks in your community are concerned with what they will have to face if you are not appointed,” Baumgardner said. “What will be your retaliation against them?”
Members of the Senate committee received a handful of letters from business owners in Iola, urging them not to confirm Toland. In them, business leaders worried that Toland’s efforts used taxpayer subsidies to bolster new businesses that competed with existing ones.
“One of those businesses has since closed down and directly sited the new businesses as the main reason they went out of business,” wrote one business owner.
For example, Thrive Allen County helped bring in G & W Grocery Store to Iola, calling it a food desert. The store received $400,000 of city taxpayer funding, despite the existence of a Walmart Super Store in town.
Senators expressed reservations about Toland’s tone in dealing with the legislature, his lack of experience in agriculture and other large Kansas industries and his lack of experience utilizing some Commerce-led state incentive programs, and concerns about his economic development efforts while serving as the executive director of Thrive Allen County.
Sen. Eric Rucker, a Topeka Republican, reminded Toland that Gov. Kelly said in her State of the State Address that her administration will do everything possible to set the right tone for finding middle ground.
“These words are tested against the reality of the political decisions the Governor makes and measured by the individuals the Governor chooses to help her govern and give meaning to her words,” Rucker said. “This has not been a good week for that.”
Kelly’s nominee, Jeffry Jack, for an appellate court seat withdrew from consideration after tweets surfaced in which Jack blasted profanities at officeholders, including President Trump.
Rucker asked David Toland about a speech he gave at Medicaid expansion rally in the Capitol last April. Toland said then he was not proud of legislators that bottle up bills supported by 80 percent of our state, and Rucker requested documentation for that number. Toland also said he was not proud of people protecting their political fortunes over protecting the lives of others.
“We’re talking about tone here and the importance of maintaining a tone with the Legislature, specifically those you ask now to support you,” Rucker said. “We must be careful with our tone to one another.”
Sen. Tom Holland apologized to Toland for the contentious hearing, sparking another tense round of discussion from committee members.
“I can’t apologize on behalf of the committee. I want to apologize for what I see is this is not an appropriate hearing this committee conducted,” Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat, said. “…I’m upset you had to sit here and endure this. This committee should know better.”
Several Senators objected. Sen. Gene Suellentrop said Holland’s apology is out of order.
“I’m offended by a fellow Senator that thinks I cannot ask a question about information that is pertaining to this application,” Suellentrop said.