TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Chamber of Commerce has expanded its 2014 legislative agenda to support repealing the state's renewable energy standard for utilities and to become involved in education issues, its executives said Tuesday.
Chamber leaders said businesses' concerns about energy costs are prompting it to enter the debate over a state law requiring utilities to see that renewable resources, such as wind power, account for 20 percent of their capacity to generate electricity by 2020.
President and CEO Mike O'Neal, a former Kansas House speaker, said the chamber will jump into education issues because businesses hire public school graduates. Also, he said, the chamber wants to protect massive income tax cuts enacted at the urging of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
O'Neal said its goal is to make Kansas as business-friendly as possible, and the chamber can't avoid energy or education issues. The chamber has been influential on tax, government spending, immigration and regulatory issues.
"We want this to be the best environment, whether that's good tax policy or whatever, and we want it to have a good education system, but we want it to be efficient, and we want to be focused on getting those kids college and career ready," O'Neal said during an interview.
Republicans hold large majorities in both legislative chambers. But O'Neal said that with educators and Democratic lawmakers suggesting that the tax cuts will starve schools of state funds, "That's a clear invitation to the table that we can't ignore."
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat who's running for governor, said he hopes the chamber will work to restore funds to public schools.
"The Kansas business-owners I know believe strong public schools are the foundation of a strong Kansas economy," said Davis, a critic of the tax cuts.
House Energy and Environment Committee Chairman Dennis Hedke, a Wichita Republican, said the chamber's stance on the renewable energy standard will help efforts to modify or repeal it. Separate bills stalled in the House and Senate last year.
Hedke called the chamber's new stance "a big move forward."
The Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank that's also influential among GOP legislators, predicted in 2012 that electric costs in Kansas would rise 45 percent by 2020 because of the renewable energy standard. But two reports last year from the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, suggested the additional cost would be less than 2 percent.
Rabbi Moti Rieber of Overland Park, who leads a coalition of 45 religious groups concerned about renewable energy and climate change, said repealing the standard will push wind companies into other states.
"It's really shocking, almost, that the chamber is taking that side of the issue instead of coming down on the side of jobs and economic development," Rieber said.
But O'Neal said the chamber is not "anti-wind."
"We are against government picking winners and losers," O'Neal said. "Wind energy has its place, but those investments have to be self-sustaining."
Kansas Chamber's legislative agenda: http://bit.ly/1iQVDQr
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
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