Topeka Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday said that despite the state budget crunch she would oppose a general tax increase — although she supports a tax increase on cigarettes — and will propose an energy plan for the 2009 Legislature to consider.
In a wide-ranging interview before the Jan. 12 start of the legislative session, Sebelius said she hopes she doesn’t see a repeat of the 2008 legislative session when so much legislation and time were tied to the proposal to build two coal-burning power plants in southwest Kansas.
Sebelius opposed the project by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. and vetoed three bills that would have required construction of the plants. Lawmakers failed to overturn her vetoes.
This upcoming session, Sebelius said she will roll out an energy plan that focuses on development of renewable energy, transmission, conservation and efficiency.
“We have some opportunities that very few states have,” Sebelius said. “We really could be self-sustained in terms of an energy future and a real leader in the country, and be at the right place at the right time.”
She said the prospect of building new coal-burning plants is more iffy now than ever because of potential regulation and penalties on carbon dioxide emissions.
“Even more than last year, we have a good deal of uncertainty about what the financial future is, what the rules will be, what the penalties will be for coal in the next year or so,” she said.
But Cindy Hertel, a spokeswoman for Sunflower Electric, said the company plans to pursue legislation again to build the plants. “We are hopeful and know we have a lot of support,” Hertel said.
Sebelius added, “I’m sure that we will have a re-engagement on the Sunflower project but I’m hoping it won’t be the only thing that the legislators talk about and are interested in.”
On other topics, Sebelius said she expects President-elect Barack Obama and Congress to approve an economic stimulus plan to help states. She said she also expects the Obama administration to push forward with plans for universal health care coverage.
“We will have an ally in Washington,” Sebelius said of Obama, for whom she vigorously campaigned.
Sebelius was considered by Obama as a vice presidential candidate and for Cabinet positions.
But Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate, and after much speculation about Cabinet posts, Sebelius announced she would stay in Kansas as the state faces an immediate $140 million budget deficit and a potential shortfall of $1 billion next year.
Although there has been talk that she may run for Senate in 2010 or take a job in the Obama administration later on, Sebelius declined to say what her political future may hold.
“We’ve got some unfinished business, and it isn’t about what I’m going to do next at the end of 2010. It’s about what we need to get done in early 2009 and that’s really where my focus is going to be, and I hope that I can keep the legislative focus there,” she said. She added that as far as her future plans go, “I’m not going to make any firm decisions about anything until the end of the session.”
On the issue of taxes, Sebelius said of any increase, “I tend to believe (it) would just add pain to an already painful situation.” On that issue, Sebelius probably has widespread agreement from the Legislature.
But Sebelius did say she supported an increase in the tax on cigarettes, saying it would provide revenue for health care while making it more difficult for youngsters to start smoking. She said she hoped the Legislature would support a statewide ban on smoking in indoor public places, describing the proposal as “probably the largest impact we could have on the health of Kansans and it costs nothing.”
On the budget situation, Sebelius wouldn’t provide details of the plans she will unveil at the start of the session.
She said she hoped to protect social services and public schools. “What we are trying to do is not dig a lot of holes for the future,” she said.
But, she said, public schools will probably not get the full increase that had been planned earlier. “The K-12 community will regard that as a cut. I would argue that trying to hold harmless as much as possible is actually light years ahead of the rest of the world.”