Archive for Sunday, January 7, 2001

Natural gas prices take top priority

January 7, 2001


— High natural gas bills are supplanting school finance as the most pressing issue as the 2001 Legislature convenes.

Constituents faced with doubling and tripling heating bills are calling the 165 legislators and asking for help paying bills or action to cap spiraling prices.

But lawmakers wonder whether there's much they can do.

"We knew that natural gas prices were going to be the sleeper issue of the session," said Senate President-elect Dave Kerr. "It may have already awakened before the session started."

Both chambers will convene at 2 p.m. Monday.

Most legislators have listed spending on public schools as the biggest issue of the session. However, tight supplies and an early, frigid winter have fueled natural gas price increases, with companies warning that the end is not in sight.

Members of the Senate Utilities Committee plan to spend the first two weeks of the session getting a grounding in natural gas and electricity issues.

Chairman Stan Clark, R-Oakley, said he did not want to take testimony until new members have a better foundation in what the state could do, if anything.

House Minority Leader Jim Garner, D-Coffeyville, said he's not sure what the state can do, other than provide money for programs that help the poor with heating bills and making their homes more energy efficient.

He said the Legislature's first job is to examine what the state can do about high gas prices.

"I think we're just getting the first wave of this," Garner said. "It's going to get worse as people use more gas."

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said he has heard from the industry that wholesale natural gas prices may level off this summer. The long-term solution may be finding a way to explore for natural gas without harming the environment to meet growing demand.

"Even to talk about a solution will stabilize the problem," Morris said.

One senator is questioning whether the Kansas Corporation Commission has done enough to regulate prices.

"Are they simply rolling over and playing dead or are they reviewing contracts?" said Sen. Paul Feliciano, D-Wichita. "I'm surprised the governor has not taken more of a stance."

This week, the KCC approved two relief plans.

Under the first, 7,500 low-income Kansas Gas Service customers will have their bills cut by 50 percent between Jan. 2 and June 30. Customers will be identified by the American Red Cross.

The second plan releases nearly $5.6 million in Kansas property tax refunds for all Kansas Gas Service residential and commercial customers. The refund $12 to $14 for most residential customers will appear on February bills.


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