House Agriculture chairman stuck in the middle on hemp

02/18/2013 06:07 PM

Senate Bill 50, which creates a regulatory framework for hemp, will land in the lap of House Agriculture Chairman Tom McKee, who is caught between advocates and a prominent farmer from his district who favor it and House Democratic leaders who don’t.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, told reporters Friday that McKee’s committee will get the Senate bill that aims to set up a regulatory structure for the hemp industry if it’s legalized by the federal government. The Senate bill passed the full Senate with a 31-6 vote last week.

A hearing in the House committee is tentatively planned for Wednesday, Feb. 27.

On one side of McKee are Stumbo and the Kentucky State Police, who have spoken out against the hemp industry. And on the other side, he has both of the U.S. congressmen who represent his home county (Harrison County is split between the 4th and 6th Dist.) along with a farmer who already has leaned on McKee regarding the issue.

Brian Furnish, a farmer who lives in McKee’s district, met with McKee on Feb. 11, the day the Senate Agriculture Committee heard testimony on hemp. At the time he said McKee did not know what he would do if the Senate passed the bill and it was assigned to his committee.

Furnish is a member of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, which is headed up by Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

Furnish grows tobacco, wheat, hay and corn. But he also has 60-70 acres of land that he grows hay because of the poor quality of land, and he said it could be an ideal place to grow hemp. Furnish also said hemp could be used as a good rotational crop – providing nutrients to the soil.

Furnish hopes the House decides not to punt on the issue of hemp by recommending another study.

“I hate to see politics stop our momentum on this,” Furnish said.

Stumbo has pushed hard for supporters to prove the economic viability of the crop before he could be in favor of growing it in Kentucky. And he said Friday that McKee agrees with him that more study is needed.

McKee did not return several messages Monday and a spokesman for the House Democrats said he was unavailable to talk about the issue.

The last Kentucky economic impact study on hemp was published in 1998 by the University of Kentucky. At the time, the report called the demand for hemp “great.”

The UK report goes on to detail the potential for Kentucky if the state is among the first to act on the crop. “If Kentucky becomes the first state to legalize industrial hemp, it will have a long-term advantage over other states in establishing the industrial hemp industry,” it says.

More recently a 2012 report prepared for the Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development Economics and Competitiveness Division found that industrial hemp appeared to have a tremendous opportunity in Alberta, but had endured a number of “false starts.”

“Many of the difficulties with industry development stem from the fact that supply chain relationships are not yet fully developed and as a result the industry is unable to fully commit on a longer term basis. The key factor to remedy this situation is finding stable end markets, specifically for fibre (sic) based products,” the report said.

Another Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, told Pure Politics on Monday that he supports industrial hemp, and said he has not felt any pressure from Stumbo to vote one way or another on the legislation.

“I’m in support of industrial hemp and my vote will reflect that,” Bell said when asked if he would support a change to the bill which would call for an economic impact study.

To Bell, the economics are simple.

“I feel that if there’s not a market (for hemp) people won’t grow it,” Bell said.

The Ag Committee comprises 15 Democrats and 13 Republicans.

But party affiliation has meant little so far in the debate over hemp. In the Senate, for instance, the votes broke more down geographical lines. Five of six ‘no’ votes came from within Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers 5th Congressional District.

On the House Agriculture Committee, only Rep. Tommy Turner, R-Somerset, and Rep. John Short, D-Hindman, represent House districts that fall in the 5th Congressional District Rogers represents.


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