Power plant struggle resumes

Senate overrides second veto, adds meter charge

Coal-plant opponents line the corridors of the Kansas Capitol as representatives make their way into the House Chambers on Wednesday in Topeka. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius rejected an alternative proposal for a coal-fired electric plant project, forcing an attempt to override Sebelius' April 17 veto of a second bill allowing the plants in southwest Kansas. Today the House failed to override the veto by four votes.

? As the standoff continued Wednesday over the proposed coal-fired power project in southwest Kansas, a new measure emerged that would hit every electric customer in the state.

A companion bill to the power plant bill was approved in the Senate that would assess a 2 cent per meter per month charge on all ratepayers for four years.

Funds raised from the charge would go toward helping Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp. develop its bio-energy research center, and also statewide energy efficiency and weatherization programs.

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, who opposes the power plant project, called the new charge a tax, and complained that it rocketed out of a hastily called committee meeting with little notice and no chance for opponents to testify.

But state Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington, who supports construction of the coal-burning plants, said of the proposed charge, “I doubt that is going to break the bank.”

Strategy-wise, the bill was seen by supporters of the project as needed to get more support behind the two 700-megawatt plants because it also included provisions to increase power from the project for use in the state.

Flurry of action

The commotion over the bill was typical of a whirlwind of activity as lawmakers started the wrap-up session.

Earlier in the day, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius rejected an ultimatum to approve the coal-fired project and the Senate voted to override her April 17 veto of a second bill that would authorize the plants.

House leaders promised an override vote today, but were uncertain of its outcome.

“We might lose some, we might win some,” said House Majority Leader Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell. “Depends on who twists the arms the best.”

The dispute is over the proposal by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. and two out-of-state partners to build the coal-burning plants.

Sebelius has rejected the project, saying that its 11 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions would hurt the environment. She has also criticized legislation on the project because it would strip regulatory authority from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

And another major complaint from Sebelius is that 85 percent of the power would be sold to customers outside Kansas.

Legislative leaders and Sunflower Electric gave Sebelius an ultimatum to accept two 600-megawatt plants, but she refused the proposal.

“I am disappointed that, for the third time in a row, the Legislature is asking me to mandate that Kansas send the power we need – the power we create – to Colorado and Texas,” Sebelius said during a news conference.

Senate overrides veto

Within hours of her rejection, the Senate overrode Sebelius’ veto, 32-7, which was five more than the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto.

State Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, voted to support Sebelius, while state Sen. Roger Pine, R-Lawrence, voted to override her veto.

But the momentum to try an override in the House bogged down as the day progressed.

The companion bill slowed down in the Senate because of technical problems and a number of amendments offered by Francisco, who opposed the proposal in committee. The full Senate adopted the measure, with Pine supporting it and Francisco passing.

As the Senate worked on the bill, the House adjourned for the evening. Some legislators had left earlier to attend the lecture by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts at Kansas University’s Lied Center.

To override Sebelius’ veto in the 125-member House would require 84 votes.

House leaders said they would vote on the companion bill this morning and then try to override Sebelius’ veto in the afternoon.

“It’s too close to call,” said House Democratic Leader Dennis McKinney of Greensburg, who supports the project.

Questions on new bill

The companion bill produced numerous questions during Senate debate concerning both the new meter charge and the way it allowed more power to be used in Kansas.

Under the proposal, the Kansas City, Kan., Board of Public Utilities would have the option to buy 200 megawatts of power from the project for use in Kansas. If BPU didn’t exercise the option, the 200 megawatts would then be available to other Kansas municipalities or cooperatives to purchase.

Early in the day, about 200 people who oppose the project lined the hallways of the Capitol, while several dozen supporters of the project also jammed the building.

Tom Thompson, a lobbyist for the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, said he hoped the House would sustain Sebelius’ veto.

But, he added, if Sebelius’ veto is overridden, the issue will be fought out in court.

“I think we’re prepared to do whatever we need to do to keep this from going forward,” Thompson said.

“The rest of the country is trying to figure out what to do with carbon and Kansas is still trying to figure out if it’s a problem or not,” he said.