Democrats, Kansas Chamber square off over coal-plant bill

? A simmering feud between Democrats and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce has erupted over the proposal to build two coal-burning power plants.

The chamber — the largest business organization in the state — launched a postcard campaign urging voters to ask their state representatives to support House Bill 2014, which will allow construction of the 700-megawatt plants near Holcomb.

The postcard doesn’t mention the plants, but describes the bill as an economic initiative that will provide needed jobs.

That prompted this response from the Kansas Democratic Party: “In their latest round of lobbying, de-facto Republican Party operatives at the Kansas Chamber of Commerce flooded mailboxes with a postcard urging Kansans to call their legislators and support a ‘comprehensive energy bill,’ HB 2014. What they fail to mention is that HB 2014 is The Coal Bill.”

Amy Blankenbiller, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, defended the content of the mailings.

She said HB 2014, which was given preliminary approval in the House on Thursday, is more than just about the coal-burning plants.

It includes environmental provisions as well as regulatory changes that will help businesses, she said.

“The focus is to establish a strong regulatory climate in this state so that all businesses can thrive and grow,” Blankenbiller said.

Opponents of the bill say it will strip the state of needed powers to protect health and environment.

As far as the chamber being an arm of the Republican Party, Blankenbiller said that’s not true, even though in the last election, the chamber endorsed only Republican legislative candidates.

“We’d love to have Democrats on our PAC endorsement list,” Blankenbiller said. “A business agenda shouldn’t be partisan.”

Even though many Democrats have voted for chamber-backed tax cuts and other issues, she said they have not been supportive enough on a variety of key issues to win the chamber’s PAC endorsement.

The divide on the coal plants bill has been almost totally partisan.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, has three times vetoed bills by the Republican-dominated Legislature that would allow the construction of the plants.

Sebelius has cited health and environmental reasons to oppose the project, which would emit 11 million tons annually of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas scientists say causes climate change. She has also said that the plants are not needed for Kansas energy needs, but that more than 80 percent of the power will be exported out of state.

Supporters of the project say the plants would be among the cleanest coal-burning facilities in the nation.

On the eve of the House debate, Sebelius said HB 2014 was “DOA” if it reached her desk.

She argued that President Barack Obama was moving forward on limiting CO2, which made the project even more untenable. And, she said, the so-called “green” provisions in the bill had been transformed to “olive brown.”

Sebelius argued that the bill would be a step backward for Kansas, and that policymakers should focus on wind energy and alternative fuels — a strategy that would fit the state’s strength and the Obama administration’s environmental initiatives.

But Blankenbiller said new coal-fired plants shouldn’t be shut out of the state’s energy future.

“The new plants are the ones most environmentally sound,” she said.