By Zack Pistora, Kansas Lobbyist for the Sierra Club
While Kansas weather is cooling down, political maneuvering and policy development are heating up as the Kansas Legislature prepares for the 2023 Legislative Session. State lawmakers return to Topeka on Monday, January 9th to take up the people’s business in a traditional 90-day session. We hope that our elected leaders will react responsibly to Americans’ increasing concern about the environment by taking advantage of new federal funding initiatives available to Kansas. They must act to preserve water quantity and quality, speed up the transition to clean energy, promote sustainable agriculture, and ensure that our land and wildlife are protected.
The designation of new party leaders and arrival of 26 incoming freshman legislators are not likely to affect the overall dynamics of next year’s Kansas Legislature. Republicans still maintain a supermajority stronghold with 80 of 125 House members (Democrats gained 1 member) and 29 of 40 Senate members. Democrats reelected Governor Laura Kelly but lost the State Treasurer's race.
Representative Dan Hawkins (R-Wichita) is expected to become House Speaker and will choose the legislative committees and committee chairs for his chamber. Speaker Hawkins should renew the Water Committee, perhaps renaming it the Water and Environment Committee or Natural Resources Committee, and select a new chair. With Blaine Finch (R-Ottawa) and Annie Kuether (D-Topeka) no longer in the Legislature, the House Energy, Utilities, and Telecommunications Committee will get new leaders too. Representatives Ken Rahjes (R-Agra) and Sydney Carlin (D-Manhattan) will likely remain as Agriculture Committee chair and ranking minority leader.
Senate committee chairs are not likely to change. Senate Utilities’ chair is Sen. Mike Thompson (R-Shawnee) and Dan Kerschen (R-Garden Plain) will chair Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Environmental Priorities for the Sierra Club Kansas Chapter
In 2023 we will be out front with a policy agenda that will aid our environment and economy, based on Kansas-style governance, including leveraging public-private partnerships, increasing consumer protections, cutting restrictions and red tape, cumbersome taxes, and empowering locally led solutions.
Wildlife and habitat protection
Property Rights & Prairie Dogs. The Kansas Sierra Club will work with groups dedicated to preserving private property rights, as well as other wildlife and conservation groups, to repeal the outdated 1901 Kansas law that allows counties to send exterminators on private property to kill prairie dogs at the property owner's expense. Prairie dogs, who inhabited Kansas lands long before statehood, have been unfairly vilified by some ranchers and county officials in Kansas for years. Better land management practices acknowledge the importance of prairie dogs to the prairie ecosystem. It’s been 15 years since Kansas lawmakers were presented with the opportunity to update the law to conform to wildlife protection strategies.
Property Rights & Pesticides. The Kansas Sierra Club will recommend a new state pesticide law to protect landowners from harmful pesticide drift and reduce the negative impacts of neonicotinoids on bees and other pollinators. Recently, neonicotinoid-laden seeds created an environmental and public health disaster in Meade, Nebraska, prompting the Nevada Legislature to consider restrictions on neonicotinoids and treated seeds. Spray drift from pesticides has been a chronic problem in Kansas, resulting in hundreds of citizen complaints every year and several instances of damages to people’s crops, animals, and personal health. In 2018, a bipartisan pair of legislators drafted a drift-protection bill, but the bill never received a hearing. These issues warrant new attention. Learn more at our January 10 Zoom event with Dr. Judy Wu-Smart.
Energy The Sierra Club will advocate two approaches to help Kansans on energy matters: decrease red tape to enable expansion of solar energy and lower electric bills by increasing consumer protections.
Freedom for Solar. Kansas homeowners face red tape and unfavorable rules from government, homeowners’ associations, and electric utilities that make going solar difficult and costly. We need to change that. Kansas is one of the sunniest states in the country, yet only about 1% of our electricity is produced by solar energy. Solar is increasingly valuable as a low-cost generator of homegrown, pollution-free energy and serves as a peak-load, premium energy price reducer and electric grid stabilizer. Surrounding states have created more solar-related business than Kansas, even though their resources aren’t as good.
This year the Sierra Club will work with business leaders, community leaders, clean energy supporters, friendly utilities, consumer advocates, and free market /limited government groups to cut red tape and unlock solar to spur economic opportunity and energy resilience. Kansas should follow Missouri's example in adopting a law which prevents homeowner associations from prohibiting home solar installations. Kansas legislators should also update our net metering law to allow more Kansas homeowners and businesses to capture a better return on their solar investment and eliminate common suppressive controls, harsh fees, or lopsided deals from utilities.
Utility Customer Protections. Energy burden – the percentage of their total income a household pays toward energy– continues to plague many Kansans, especially seniors on fixed incomes, rural Kansans, and communities of color. Rising energy prices from fossil fuels and inflation have worsened financial hardship for many. Tens of thousands of Kansans struggle to pay their bills, prompting utilities to shut off power, heat, and water, even for residents with medical needs or infants. Turning off utility services to customers makes bad situations worse. Many utilities don’t do enough to help customers reduce their energy use or obtain social services. The result - Kansas ratepayers absorb costs from utilities passing on unpaid debts.
How can the Kansas Legislature and Kansas utilities help? Utilities should publicly disclose numbers of shutoffs by zip code or census tract to help governments and nonprofits focus assistance efforts. Utilities should implement lower cost rates for low-income households. Alternative approaches should be considered for involuntary disconnections for customers with medical needs or during unsafe weather conditions. Utilities, whether for-profit, cooperative, or municipal, should adjust their rates to ‘decouple’ utility sales from revenue collection so that their revenue is based on quality of service.
Funding from Existing Sales Tax. After a contentious debate on the 283-page Water Bill proposed in 2022, many legislators and stakeholders supported dedicating a portion of our state sales tax for the benefit of conserving our most precious natural element, water. If a little more than one-tenth of 1% of the state sales tax revenue were channeled to the State Water Plan Fund, about $50 million could be added to the state’s critical water programs, nearly tripling the amount of funding currently allocated. This possibility aligns with the recommendation of the 2016 Blue Ribbon Task Force for Water Resource Management. But even though this change would significantly increase funding and capacity, the consensus of the 2022 Special Committee on Water that more needs to be done. Fortunately, we have a few ideas at the Sierra Club.
State ‘Save Water’ Goal. First, the state should adopt a water conservation goal. Voluntary reductions in water use of 20% over the next 5 years could make a substantial difference in future water supply and increased public awareness of the need for water conservation. From 2012-2017, farmers in the Sheridan Co. #6 LEMA voluntarily agreed to reduce their groundwater use by 20% (but ended with a result of a 23.1% reduction) over 5 years and found they cut groundwater decline rates by 75% and collectively made greater profits. With more than 80% of the state’s water being consumed by irrigation, an adoption of this practice by all irrigators could make a tremendous impact on water supplies. By extending this goal to all Kansans, every Kansas community can take part in the progress and support each other to impact our future well-being. State and locally elected officials, farm and conservation organizations, GMDs, water utilities, businesses, and other stakeholders should all participate to ensure success. This state goal concept has proven successful -- Kansas had a goal for 20% renewable energy by 2020 that resulted in a 40% renewable energy level at the end of 2020.
Water Depletion Trust Fund: A valuation depletion trust fund for water is the blueprint for how the state can empower local communities to build conservation efforts in the areas where the water resources are extracted. The concept of a valuation depletion trust fund, used for Kansas oil and gas resources, recognizes the need for compensation to the community when a precious resource is extracted by an individual. By assessing a cost upon the lost value from the extracted resource and returning those revenues back into the county, a balance is created. A valuation depletion trust fund could allocate funds for water conservation strategies in the same communities affected by depleted water supply. The oil and gas depletion scheme worked well for a decade until Governor Sam Brownback’s administration interfered with the money transfers. With better leadership and increased understanding of the urgency of the water problem today, we could expect a “Water Depletion Trust Fund” to be successful.
The Kansas Sierra Club has long stood up for Kansans negatively impacted by industrial agriculture. We have filed lawsuits, issued public comments, petitioned agencies, and opposed legislation when large industrial animal agriculture facilities, commonly known as CAFOs, intrude upon the lives of rural residents and negatively impact our environment. It’s past time for the Kansas Legislature to improve protections for rural residents and adopt better safeguards for nearby residents and water bodies.
Increased protections are even more critical as animal agriculture interests try to rewrite laws to expand and accommodate the industry. Earlier this year, the Kansas Livestock Association introduced HB 2531 to allow private entities to use a county’s public right-of-way for ‘agricultural pipelines’ to transport water or hog wastes without approval or compensation to affected property owners. Sierra Club pointed out that HB 2531 would have enabled private parties to build on private property without consent of the landowner if county commissioners didn’t deny the application within 90 days. Fortunately, legal questions gave House leaders pause, ultimately stalling the bill. However, HB 2531 supporters vowed to bring the bill back. It’s clear that if agriculture or any other industry is to stay or expand in Kansas, there should be appropriate regulatory protections in place to prevent or alleviate harm done to host communities.
Join Us in Our Legislative Advocacy
Remember: “To change everything, we need everyone.”
You can join forces with us and receive legislative updates by becoming a member of Sierra Club and signing up for SierraKan. Together, we will encourage our state legislators to adopt innovative and sensible strategies to help our environment, sustain our economy, and improve the lives of Kansans. Learn more about SierraKan or visit our website at www.sierraclub.org/kansas and click the ‘Legislature’ button under the ‘Our Work’ tab.
As always, feel free to reach out to me, Zack@kansas.sierraclub.