Monthly Archives: March 2011

House moves to send Kansas Bioscience Authority funding directly to CIBOR, NIAR, other projects

The state House stripped the Kansas Bioscience Authority of control of roughly half its state funding during budget deliberations Thursday. It opted instead to send the money directly to state bioscience projects, including two in Wichita.

The 2012 budget has yet to be finalized.

“I really like what we set the bioscience authority up to do. But since then, it has changed,” said Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Bel Aire. “It’s my belief that the centers of excellence and innovation have been underfunded by the very entity we created to fund them.”

He moved to take $16 million of the authority’s state money and give it to the eight centers at state universities. Each would get $2 million, including the two in Wichita, the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) and the Center for Innovation in Biomaterials in Orthopaedic Research (CIBOR). A bioscience development and investment fund was created to facilitate the move.

Read More »

Federal judge finds violations in Holcomb coal power plant approval

An energy-versus-environment controversy that consumed years of debate in state government has flared again, with a judge’s ruling that a federal agency failed to follow anti-pollution law when it approved a coal plant near Holcomb in western Kansas.

The Sierra Club and Earthjustice had sued to try to block the plant, claiming that the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service had acted improperly by not requiring an environmental impact statement on the 895-megawatt generating station.

Federal District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in Washington granted the environmental groups’ request for summary judgment. His reasons were not immediately released, pending action by lawyers in the case to remove confidential business information before the full order is made public.

The environmental groups had argued that federal subsidies from the RUS – and its assumption of a $91 million financial interest in the coal plant developer, Sunflower Electric Power Corp. — essentially made the Holcomb plant a federal project.

“As a public project, the Holcomb plant requires close public scrutiny and a meaningful analysis of alternatives and environmental risks,” Earthjustice lawyer Jan Hasselman said in a statement. “Without it, both taxpayers and our environment are at risk.”

Sunflower officials declined comment.

Sunflower originally proposed adding two 700-megawatt generating units to its existing 360-megawatt plant, but the Kansas Department of Health and Environment under then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius denied required air-quality permits. From 2007 to 2009, the Legislature passed four bills to try to force approval, all of which Sebelius vetoed.

Within a week of taking over after Sebelius resigned to join the Obama Administration as Health and Human Services secretary, the new governor, Mark Parkinson, made a deal with Sunflower to allow the scaled-back power plant in conjunction with environmental improvements to offset its impact.

The Parkinson compromise cut the plant’s projected output of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to global climate change, from nearly 11 million tons a year to 6.6 million. The offsets were projected to reduce the overall CO2 impact by an additional 3 million tons.

The plant received its state permits in December, shortly before Parkinson left office and shortly after he fired Rod Bremby, the KDHE secretary who had denied the Holcomb permits during Sebelius’ administration.

Legislative veterans of the Holcomb fight had varying views on the court decision favoring the environmental interests.

“This is a wake-up call to go and re-examine the project,” said Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Utilities Committee.

She said she was not surprised by the judge’s ruling, saying there have always been questions about the federal role in Sunflower’s finances and how that might affect environmental requirements.

“This has been a concern of mine since we started the debate all those years ago,” she said.

“From day one, everyone expected everyone to sue everyone,” said Rep. Nile Dillmore, D-Wichita. Of the judge’s decision, he said “that’s an interesting twist.”

House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe, said he thinks the decision is “harmful to Kansas and our energy needs and prices.”

Like Dillmore, he said he had expected litigation after the coal plant was approved.

“We must have coal-generated power,” he said. “Many of us want nuclear energy (but) that would be a minimum 10 years away.”

He said he expects the coal plant to be up and running sooner.

“My position is it will prevail and be allowed to go forward eventually, after these challenges play out.” he said.

Judge Sullivan granted Sunflower’s request to file additional arguments before determining a remedy in the case. Under his order, the final briefs and replies will be due June 27.

Last minute cash flowing into city council races

March 25 was a good day for James Clendenin’s campaign for the open city council seat in southeast Wichita’s third district. He collected $7,500 in campaign money that day. Then he landed another $1,000 in the two days after, giving a boost to the $13,625 he has already raised during the race.

Clendenin had already easily eclipsed his opponent, Mark Gietzen, in the money game. Gietzen’s most recent financial report showed him with $18 on hand for the rest of the race — though he may raise more and report it before the deadline later today.

(Research campaign finance on your own with The Eagle’s searchable database.)

Clendenin’s cash came from real estate developers, lawyers, bankers and machinists. Among those giving maximum $500 contributions were Andrew, Paula, Susan and Mark Hutton, all listed as attorneys. Genesis Health Clubs owner Rodney Steven II also gave $500, as did developer Jay Russell.

Southwest Wichita’s fourth district campaigns also caught a wave of last minute money. Candidate Joshua Blick reported $5,000 in checks on March 25. All came as maximum contributions of $500. The contributors include: Georgia Biggs, James Dunning, James Dunning Jr., Douglas Farha, Mary Laham, Steven Ritchie, Greg Somerhalder, Elena Somerhalder, Carolyn Timsah and Talal Timsah.

Candidate Michael O’Donnell, meanwhile, reported $1,350 in last minute money. Jay and Pam Russell gave a combined $500, car dealer Les Eck added $500, Benjamin Lee, a dentist, gave $200 and Paul Attwater III, a financial adviser, pitched in $150, the report shows.

Local lawmakers alter budget to protect charity cigar dinner and cut Legislature employees’ pay

TOPEKA — Two south central Kansas legislators won the first victories this morning in the House’s budget battle.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, got a budget amendment through to protect a Goddard priest’s annual charity cigar dinner from prosecution under the state’s indoor smoking ban.

And Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, got the House to agree to include legislative employees in a general salary cut for state workers.

In what is expected to be a lengthy debate, the House is considering amendments to the budget proposal presented by its Appropriations Committee. The debate allows any representative to weigh in what he or she thinks should or should not be in the budget.

Ward

Ward’s amendment would prohibit police from enforcing the state indoor smoking ban against charitable organizations that have held and continue to hold cigar-oriented fund-raising events.

It is specifically designed to shield the Annual Benefit Cigar Dinner held by The Rev. H. Setter, a Catholic priest and cigar enthusiast.

The dinner raises about $10,000 to $20,000 a year for the Setter Foundation, which gives grants to local groups that help the homeless, unwed mothers, and people with disabilities.

The House had already passed language to protect “Father H’s” event from the smoking ban that passed last year. But it was included in a bill to also ban smoking on the gaming floor of state-owned casinos, a controversial measure that may not make it through the Senate.

“This gives us another vehicle,” Ward said. His amendment passed on a voice vote.

DeGraaf won a narrower victory with his amendment to impose pay cuts on employees of the legislative branch.

DeGraaf

The budget contemplates cutting 7.5 percent from the salaries of lawmakers, statewide officeholders, judges and others making $100,000 or more. Employees making $40,000 to $100,000 would take pay cuts ranging from zero to 7.5 percent depending where they fall on a sliding scale.

The Appropriations Committee had recommended exempting employees of the Legislature from the pay cuts.

Noting that employees of the executive and judicial branches will be taking cuts, DeGraaf said “I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to exempt our branch, our workers.” Read More »

House delays decision on intervening in Sumner County casino contract

By Todd Fertig

It’s unclear when the House will decide whether or not to have the attorney general intervene in the contract for a Sumner County casino.

House Resolution 6015 would require Attorney General Derek Schmidt to to challenge the state gaming commission’s decision to award the contract to Peninsula Gaming’s Kansas Star casino.

The resolution was to have been debated Wednesday evening, but the House instead adjourned for the day.

“It was getting late and we knew the debate would be long,” said House Speaker Rep. Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson. “Since it’s a resolution, it doesn’t have to be done this week.”

Read More »

House approves AT&T deregulation, opponents say phone rates will increase

TOPEKA — In a move that will almost certainly raise the price of stand-alone phone service, the House of Representatives today approved a bill to remove the last price caps on AT&T, the state’s dominant phone company.

Senate Bill 72 will take the brakes off AT&T ability to hike rates on single-line residential and four-line small-business service.

At present, urban residential customers pay $16.50 a month for ordinary local service, not including taxes and fees. Rural customers pay $15.50.

Packages in which AT&T bundles basic service with Internet access, television, or services such as caller ID, call waiting and conference calling, are already deregulated. But increases in the price of basic home and business service are limited by the Consumer Price Index.

SB 72 changes that and will let the company charge what the market will bear.

The House approved the measure on a voice vote, following a lengthy debate over prices and rural access to phone service. Read More »

House passes bill restricting abortion clinics, procedures

TOPEKA — The House today passed the third bill of its anti-abortion trifecta, calling for strict regulations of clinics and doctors’ offices where abortions are provided.

House Substitute for Senate Bill 36 would require abortion clinics to be licensed and comply with a long list of medical standards and practices. Abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy would have to be done at a hospital or surgical center.

The bill passed on an overwhelming voice vote and assuming approval on the formal roll call, it will go to the Senate for consideration. SB 32 is the third anti-abortion measure to win House approval this session. Read More »

Sedgwick County commissioners approve Frontier subsidy

Sedgwick County commissioners this morning approved giving Frontier Airlines $333,750 to provide low-cost service from Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

Commissioner Richard Ranzau voted against the subsidy, saying he could not support giving money to a business when the county is planning to lay off employees.

The money is part of an earlier revenue guarantee agreement the county approved.

Chief financial officer Chris Chronis said Frontier did not ask for a revenue agreement in 2009 but later was acquired by Republic Airlines, which changed service from turbo-prop airplanes to jets. It then asked for a $500,000 revenue guarantee through September 2010. The county approved an agreement in May 2010 but because the contract would expire in September, reduced its guarantee to $166,667.

The $333,750 guarantee will be good through June 30.

Ranzau said the decision to provide jet service was the company’s business decision, not the county’s, and that the county should not have to pay for it.

Sedgwick County to trim adult residential program

Sedgwick County commissioners this morning approved eliminating 23 positions from the corrections department’s adult residential program, which provides an alternative to prison for felons who meet certain criteria.

Public safety director Bob Lamkey explained to commissioners this morning that budget constraints forced the cuts.

The adult residential program is state-funded and was established in 1983. There has been level state funding for the program since 1990, about $1.2 million a year, which supported 75 felons in the program.

The county kicked in money to serve 45 more people in 2005, Lamkey said. The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council recommended doing so to ease the waiting list for the program.

Lamkey today recommended reducing annual county funding for the program by $800,000 and reducing the number of people eligible for the program to 65. The county would honor the current waiting list and plea agreements under the plan, Lamkey said.

As part of the plan, the county will eliminate 23 positions. Some people might qualify for other county jobs or early retirement. The county expects to announce an early retirement program in the next two weeks, as The Eagle reported Monday.

Some people could be laid off, Lamkey said.

Election office predicting 14 percent voter turnout next week

Sedgwick County election commissioner Bill Gale updated county commissioners this morning about preparations for next week’s elections for city and school board offices.

“I don’t think we’ll see as low of turnout at the primary, which was 8 percent. I’ve been trying to rub my crystal ball hard,” Gale said, predicting a turnout of 14 percent.

The election office started mailing advance ballots out March 16. The office had mailed out 7,500 advance ballots as of Tuesday, and voters had returned about half of those.

Advance voting in person at the election office started a week ago today. About 200 people have voted in the office so far, Gale said.

Satellite advance voting starts tomorrow. There are 15 satellite locations across the community for advance voting.