Feb 27, 2012

Multiple Issues to Impact Rural Communities, Family Farms, & the Environment

By Paul Johnson and Mary Fund

Redistricting, tax reform, the state budget, immigration policy, corporate farming, and "fracking" are all topics under discussion at the Kansas Statehouse this session. All have great potential to impact agriculture, the environment and rural communities, and set the stage for further erosion of power in rural communities and a reduction of environmental protection.

The Governor and his administration are publicly recruiting development of large agricultural operations and "horizontal fracturing" oil and natural gas wells. Funding for environmental budgets and staff have been reduced in recent years, leaving the questions: will there be a balance between development and environmental protection? and what steps if any will be taken to encourage farmers in anything but the industrial corporate model? and what will happen to our communities ?

KRC is reporting on these issues through its Legislative and Policy Watch Program with Paul Johnson monitoring several key issues. Paul provides a Weekly E-Update online. Register to receive these updates by e-mailing ksrc@rainbowtel.net . Below are summaries of several issues KRC is following.

Budget and Tax Reform. The Legislature has to complete a budget for 2013 by the end of the session. While the revenue picture for the state has improved, cuts to programs made in the past year leave state programs hard pressed to meet needs. Additional drastic cuts are not likely, but the significant reductions to public schools and social services over the past two years are not likely to be reversed. So, the critical policy question is whether to use the improved ending state balance to rebuild inadequate public school finances and social services or to use the extra revenues for tax cuts?

The Governor's tax policy plan to significantly reduce personal income tax obligations has not received broad support. The Kansas House is working on its own plan, that is not quite as regressive but takes $300 million from the state highway funds to make it work. The Senate is also in the process of reworking the Governor's plan.

The Americans for Prosperity and Kansas Policy Institute (both with ties- known and suspected- to Koch Brothers industry money) have launched aggressive ad campaigns pushing tax cuts and a small govern-ment agenda. It hard to say if fundamental tax policy can be passed during this session or instead be the center of debate in the fall elections. If not accomplished this session, brace yourself for an ugly campaign season of outside, corporate advocates telling you what is in your own best interest.

Redistricting. The Kansas Legislature has to redraw the districts for the Kansas House, Senate and four Congressional seats. The Kansas House map looks done with three western districts eliminated and three new districts added in Johnson County, the state's largest population center and wealthiest county. The Kansas Senate map is proving much more difficult. Johnson County must be given a new Senate seat so the other 39 seats must be reworked. The Congressional map is equally challenging. The hope was to have all the maps done by Feb. 24 but that seems unlikely. Filing deadline for 2012 elections is June 10.

Corporate Swine Law. In the 1990's, the state established a law giving county commissions authority to permit or deny corporate dairies but allowing citizens the right to vote on allowing corporate swine opera-tions in their counties. Amid grassroots upheaval, several Western Kansas counties voted to ban corporate swine facilities.

Now the state is courting development of these mega-swine and dairy operations. HB 2502 is making its way through both houses and may well be passed to the Governor for signature by this printing.

HB 2502 basically makes it easier for counties to allow corporate swine operations. Once a county commission passes a resolution allowing these facilities, county residents have to circulate a petition to request a county vote. 5% of voters in the last election will have to sign the petition to bring it to a vote. The bill was rushed through the Legislature, with little public reporting or knowledge. It is up to citizens in counties impacted to organize as quickly as possible to respond to any county commission actions.

Immigration. Given the above economic interest in Kansas to recruit more large dairies and hog farms, the interest in immigration laws is high. Western Kansas big ag needs the immigrant labor force, yet Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is leading the charge to write state laws nationwide to strengthen enforcement. This creates an interesting paradox for those trying to grow the agricultural economy via big corporate enterprises.

Kansas's Secretary of Agriculture Dale Rodman has floated a pilot program in Kansas to develop our own "guest worker" program to help fill the labor gap for agriculture.

Fracking. The Kansas legislature has at least two bills dealing with hydraulic fracturing (or fracking). This new style of horizontal drilling is coming to Kansas in a big way. 66 horizontal well permits were issued in 2011, more than the last three years combined. There are estimates of up to 3000 drilling leases planned for south central and northwestern Kansas.

Horizontal fracking involves drilling vertical for over one mile and then drilling horizontal for another mile. The fracking process cracks open layers of rock across the horizon with a mix of water, sand and chemicals releasing trapped oil and natural gas. The promise is that these oil and gas deposits are far below water aquifers so there is little opportunity to pollute groundwater. But one typical well uses up to 5 million gallons of water mixed with chemicals in the fracking process. This water is highly polluted and is hauled away to deep injection wells. These injection wells are suspected of causing or contributing to recent earthquakes in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Ohio.

SB 375 addresses the issue of applying drilling solids on farmland. Right now the one choice is con-structing pits on site and putting the concentrated solids there. SB 375 allows applying the solids to farmland with some minimal restrictions, including establishing allowable distances from waterways and incor-poration into the soil in parts of the state with over 25 inches of rainfall per year. (On other fronts, currently sedimentation of our reservoirs and lakes is a critical issue to protect water quality. This does not build confidence in our ability to stop agricultural run-off.)

Another bill, HB 2526 gives explicit authority over horizontal drilling to the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC), which is in charge of regulating oil and gas operations in Ks. The KCC has 91 employees statewide with four field offices. Will they be capable of monitoring even for minimal environmental regulations?


Back issues of KRC's Legislative and Policy Watch Weekly E-Report dating to this year's first issue January 6, 2012, are available at KRC's website at http://www.kansasruralcenter. org/policy.html.

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