The Richmond Register

March 6, 2013

Hemp bill clears hurdle but must face others

Senate Bill 50

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — FRANKFORT — The House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday passed Senate Bill 50 to provide a “framework” for the cultivation of hemp after days of pressure on the committee chairman, Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana.

But House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, seems in no mood to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, and pushed by Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, would set up regulations for growing industrial hemp if the federal government legalizes the product.

It easily passed the Senate but isn’t supported by Stumbo, who says current law already positions Kentucky to move immediately if the federal government relaxes or ends its ban on growing hemp.

Last week McKee denied a vote on the bill in his committee, instead planning to offer a committee substitute to SB 50 for a vote.

He began that meeting saying SB 50 had been scheduled “for discussion only.” But when Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, moved for a vote on the original bill, McKee recessed the meeting and subsequently adjourned the committee when it reconvened on the House floor that afternoon.

Supporters of the bill reacted angrily, accusing McKee of obstructionism and playing politics, and apparently mobilized farmers in McKee’s district to call him in support of the bill.

So Wednesday, the committee again took up the bill, but not before McKee made a five-minute speech about the legislative process and again declaring last week’s motion was out of order.

“I did not refuse to allow a vote that was in order,” McKee said. “I’d announced plainly (the bill) was for discussion only and that means no vote would be taken at that time.”

McKee reviewed his history of supporting hemp as an alternative agriculture product while several other committee members decried how McKee had been characterized in the fight over hemp.

“If industrial hemp can offer new opportunities for our farmers and create thousands of jobs for our economy (both claims of hemp supporters), then this committee is ready to vote on that proposed legislation,” McKee said. “So a motion on Senate Bill 50 is in order.”

The bill easily passed, with only Republican Tommy Turner of Somerset voting no. Several Democrats who voted for the bill, however, qualified their votes by saying they hoped Comer and Hornback would agree to work with law enforcement to address some of their concerns about the difficulty in distinguishing hemp from marijuana.

Some spoke in defense of McKee.

“The chairman of this committee has been bedeviled, but he’s a good man,” said Rep. Terry Mills, D-Lebanon. He also described the “passion” about the issue on both sides and urged all to “remain calm.”

“This is my 13th year up here,” said Rep. Mike Denham, D-Maysville. “Tom McKee is one of the most honorable and fair people down here.”

Turner said he voted no because his concerns about law enforcement questions hadn’t been adequately answered. He said those concerns weren’t overcome by the overwhelming support of the bill by members of his party.

“In the end, I’ve got to do what Tommy Turner thinks is the right thing to do,” Turner said.

Afterward, Comer said he “is very excited about what the committee did and we look forward to getting a fair vote on the House floor in the next couple of days.”

Stumbo said that’s unlikely.

“I doubt it will go to the House floor,” Stumbo said. “It’s got a lot of problems.”

Stumbo said since the bill charges a fee, SB 50 might be out of order because revenue bills must begin in the House.

He again questioned the claims by Comer and others about its economic benefits and said the bill would actually add a layer of bureaucracy since he believes current law allows Kentucky to move immediately if the federal govern

Comer predicted as many as 80 votes for the bill — if it gets a vote. Only four days remain in the 30-day session.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.