The Associated Press
TOPEKA, Kan. — A bill sought by the Department of Agriculture to end small headaches in regulating grocery stores and vending machines didn’t get much attention as it slipped quietly through the Legislature this year.
But House Speaker Melvin Neufeld and his staff noticed, particularly one section several pages into the measure. It said the secretary of agriculture couldn’t impose regulations more stringent than those imposed by the federal government, unless legislators approved.
To them, the section had a familiar ring. Something similar for the secretary of health and environment had been included in two bills Gov. Kathleen Sebelius had vetoed during the biggest legislative debate of the year.
Those bills allow two coal-fired power plants in southwest Kansas, which Neufeld, an Ingalls Republican, strongly supports. Sebelius has criticized provisions restricting the secretary of health and environment’s power, saying they’re unacceptable to her.
So why, Neufeld wonders, did Sebelius sign a bill containing a similar restriction on the secretary of agriculture? He believes she’s being inconsistent, something her staff disputes.
The contentious debate over coal-fired plants casts a huge shadow. When people have points to make, public opinion to shape and votes to change, seemingly insignificant things like the agriculture bill become relevant.
And this year, the legislative session seems to be all about whether the two coal plants get built.
“You see other legislatures in coal mining states spend a lot of time on coal, but nothing like this, not day in, day out,” said Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s national anti-coal campaign.
Legislators return Wednesday from their annual spring break to wrap up their business for the year. Responding to Sebelius’ vetoes tops the agenda for Republican leaders.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who opposes the coal-plant bills, contends Neufeld is holding other issues hostage. Neufeld denies it.
But, by design or not, as Hensley noted, “We have to resolve this issue before we can resolve a lot of other issues.”
Sunflower Electric Power Corp. wants to build the two plants outside Holcomb, in Finney County. In October, Rod Bremby, secretary of health and environment, denied an air-quality permit for the project.
He cited the two plants’ potential carbon dioxide emissions of up to 11 million tons a year. He added that the state couldn’t ignore the dangers of global warming, which many scientists link to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
But the state has no written rules on CO2, and many legislators believe the state should leave regulation of greenhouse gases to the federal government. Many also see Sunflower’s project — costing at least $3.6 billion and probably significantly more — as economic development.
The bills Sebelius vetoed would allow Sunflower to reapply for its permits, under rules requiring Bremby to approve it.
Also, he couldn’t use his emergency powers to protect the environment to deny an air-quality permit, something he did in Sunflower’s case. Nor could he set pollution rules stricter than those imposed by the federal government, unless legislators approved.
Critics believe such changes will make Kansas, in a memorable phrase from Nilles, “the ashtray of the Midwest.”
Backers argue such a bill will restore predictability to the permitting process and protect the state’s future prosperity.
“There is partnership between business and government,” said Amy Blankenbiller, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Chamber, the state’s largest business group. “That partnership is: The rules are laid out; businesses meet them; the government gives the permit.”
None of this has much to do with the Department of Agriculture’s regulation of grocery stores, food processing plants and vending machine companies, except that its bill makes what Neufeld believes is a useful point.
The bill clarified that the Department of Agriculture can set rules for making sure such businesses are sanitary and safe. It also clarified the department’s authority to issue fines, to refuse to renew a license and to seize tainted food.
In February, the Senate approved it, 39-0. A month later, the House passed it, 125-0, without making a single change.
And, of course, the bill contained the provision limiting the secretary of agriculture’s ability to impose rules.
“The secretary of agriculture said that did not affect his ability to regulate,” Neufeld said. “And the governor signed it.”
When Sebelius signed the bill earlier this month, she said in a statement that she was reluctant to limit any secretary’s authority. Sebelius also said she acted only after consulting with Agriculture Secretary Adrian Polansky and receiving his assurances that the changes wouldn’t prevent him from protecting the public health.
Bremby has taken the opposite view the bills Sebelius has vetoed. There’s another key difference: The agriculture bill didn’t order the affected secretary to overturn the biggest permitting decision of his tenure.
Responding to Neufeld’s attempt to raise the agriculture bill as an issue, Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said in an e-mail: “This one is easy — tell them to try harder next time.”
“They are not the same,” she wrote.
Whichever view Kansans accept, the debate over the coal fired plants has pulled in plenty of side issues. To say the discussion about Sunflower’s project has dominated the session doesn’t quite capture the pervasiveness of it.
The Associated Press
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