Speaker to Lawrence: Don’t fret

Neufeld promises 'good policy' for state

? Some Lawrence officials have expressed concern that the ascension of western Kansan Melvin Neufeld to the most powerful position in the state House could mean problems for Lawrence, especially in light of a move by the City Commission opposing the construction of a huge coal-burning power plant in Neufeld’s area.

But Neufeld, who was elected speaker of the House this week by the Republican caucus, said Wednesday there’s nothing to fear.

“The biggest problem with that kind of thinking is that I’m actually a Kansan. Thinking too small is not something that I want to be guilty of.

“What this is about is the best policy for the state of Kansas. We will promote good policy,” Neufeld said in an interview.

But while Neufeld, a conservative Republican, said he has no ill feelings toward the Lawrence City Commission, he is an adamant supporter of the proposal by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build three 700-megawatt plants next to its existing 360-megawatt plant in Holcomb, which is about 45 miles west of his hometown of Ingalls in southwest Kansas.

“You’d have to be a little goofy not to support it,” Neufeld said, because the proposal would include modern technology that will be more efficient and cleaner burning.

“We’re already out there on some days where the air purity coming out of the stack is cleaner than the ambient coming in,” he said.

Commission opposes project

Opponents disagree, saying the plant will be the largest new source of greenhouse gas in the country.

Last month, the Lawrence City Commission voted 3-2 to send a letter asking the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to deny the permit for the project and for Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to place a moratorium on additional coal-fired power plants until a feasibility study is conducted on the potential of renewable energy sources. The permit is still under review.

At the time, commissioners who were opposed to the letter warned there could be a political price to pay for it in Topeka. West Kansas legislators and many chamber leaders from the area support the project, saying it will provide jobs to a rural part of the area that is struggling economically.

The commission’s action prompted an angry comment from Sunflower spokesman Steve Miller, who said he would push for a western Kansas boycott of Lawrence. He later apologized.

Lawrence has right

Mayor Mike Amyx was one of those who said the commission’s opposition could produce political obstacles in the future.

On Tuesday, however, he said that while he had “great respect” for the Legislature, the city had a right to comment on the issue.

“There may be a difference of opinion on it, but the letter has been sent,” Amyx said. “The commission decided this was important enough to make our views known.”

Many of those opposed to the plant say that Sunflower has overstated the economic benefit of the project because most of the electricity it will produce will be sold out of state. And they have said working toward renewable sources, such as wind energy, would in the long run provide more economic development in west Kansas.

Mike Rundle, who was the commissioner who spurred the commission to write the letter to KDHE, said he hoped the letter wouldn’t hurt Lawrence in the Legislature.

“I would hope that legislators would look at the good of the whole state and support what will help the entire state the most,” he said. “This one coal plant, in my opinion, is second in line behind wind energy in helping the state as a whole.”

Commissioner Boog Highberger, who voted to send the letter, also is an employee of KDHE. He received a legal opinion from city staff that he didn’t need to abstain from the issue because his job at KDHE isn’t directly related to the permit application.

“The city supports economic development in the western part of the state. But I believe economic development in any part of the state should be done in a sustainable way,” Highberger said.

Neufeld at odds

As a conservative and former chairman of the House budget committee, Neufeld often has been at odds with Lawrence legislators over state spending, school finance and higher education.

But lawmakers said they hoped that wouldn’t affect his performance in his new role as speaker when the session starts Jan. 8.

Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said outgoing House Speaker Doug Mays, also a conservative Republican, “was always fair to the Democrats in the House. I would hope that Melvin will continue that.”

Republicans outnumber Democrats in the House 78-47, but Democrats are sometimes able to secure majorities by teaming up with moderate Republicans.