Politics & Government

Kansas legislature adjourns after OK of new power plant

TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers adjourned their 2009 session early Saturday morning after approving a deal to allow a western Kansas coal plant, extending some unemployment benefits and closing the state’s budget deficit.

The Senate adjourned at 2:29 a.m., with the House following at 2:37 a.m., capping a session that was marked by difficult budget cuts prompted by recession-era revenue declines.

"I think history will perhaps judge this session as one of the most difficult Kansas has confronted," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.

The last day saw a flurry of activity:

Lawmakers passed a bill to stretch unemployment benefits out to a year for part-time workers who are retraining.

The bill makes Kansas eligible for about $70 million in unemployment money from federal stimulus funds.

The House gave final approval to a compromise that will allow Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build a single coal-fired plant near Holcomb.

In exchange, the utility agrees to increase its investment in wind energy and other environmental concessions.

The deal, worked out by Gov. Mark Parkinson, is contingent on the bill passed Friday. It requires utilities to gradually increase the use of renewable energy sources, gives incentives to some landowners with wind turbines and solar panels, and creates energy efficiency standards for new state buildings.

The legislation also strips the state's top regulator of the discretion he used to block Sunflower’s original two-plant idea.

After two years of wrangling over the Sunflower project, lawmakers passed the bill easily. The House vote was 103-18. The Senate approved the measure 37-2 on Thursday.

Parkinson’s compromise “has moved us ahead,” said Rep. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican. “He’s moved us beyond politics. The roadblock is out of the way.”

Lawmakers approved final changes needed to balance the budget.

They already had passed cuts to shrink the deficit from $328 million to $70 million. To close the final gap, they ended some state tax credits and endorsed a plan to give some tax delinquents amnesty if they pay up.

The measure passed over the objections of House leaders, who said lawmakers had failed to rein in spending. They note that the budget, which takes effect July 1, has a cushion of only $17,000.

“That will last us about a day and then we’ll be underwater,” said Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican.

The House rejected a final push to pass a tougher seat belt law. The bill would have let police stop and ticket drivers and front-seat passengers for not buckling up.

State law requires seat belt use, but motorists 18 and older can’t be pulled over unless they’ve committed another violation, such as speeding.

Opponents argued that the state can’t legislate common sense and that a tougher law would give police an excuse to engage in racial profiling.

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