House Agriculture chairman stuck in the middle on hemp

02/18/2013 07:07 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.

About Nick Storm

Nick Storm joined cn|2 in December 2011 as a reporter for Pure Politics. Throughout his career, Nick has covered several big political stories up close, including interviewing President Barack Obama on the campaign trail back in 2008. Nick says he loves being at the forefront of Kentucky politics and working with the brightest journalists in the commonwealth. Follow Nick on Twitter @Nick_Storm. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or nicholas.storm@twcnews.com.

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Comments

  • viewer wrote on February 18, 2013 08:14 PM :

    I would like to hear what farmers think about Monsanto. There is a federal lawsuit going on now about their patents. Ask Jamie Comer and Farm Bureau what side they are on with companies like Monsanto. They sure look like the Wal mart of the farming world. Scary !!!!

  • RB Clay wrote on February 19, 2013 11:00 AM :

    So something finally becomes clear. There are two studies on the feasibility of hemp in Ky. Comer et. al. are pushing the study by the Gatton Business School at UK written by non-farmers, though professors, and apparently financed by hemp interests (this is the 1998 report referenced above). To say the picture it paints is “glowing” does not do justice to the bells and whistles it trots out. I find many of the statements made about farming economics in it simply ludicrous. As a farmer I have a somewhat earlier report (1996?) by the Dept. of Agriculture at UK on the prospects of hemp.It paints an opposite picture…of a crop with no viable economic future at present and certainly not in competition with present crops. As a farmer I will go with this report…and will look forward to Ag. economists like Will Snell at UK to review the whole matter and not the flack produced by the special interests. As a side comment, the whole affair is an argument for abolishing the constitutional role of Commissioner of Agriculture in the state just as we abolished the Railroad Commission….remember that one? In 50+ years of farming I cannot recall anything the Ag. Commissioner has done for agriculture. When in need, go to Extension Office which draws on the agricultural expertise of our land grant colleges. You can get informed opinion and advice there, and next door you can get money from the Federal FSA, plus participate in important conservation programs like CRP. At least with the last two ag. commissioners, the office seems to have been reduced to a paid role for folks who are trying to advance their political careers. All this is totally aside from the law concerns of our Police commissioner which are real and I suggest we pay attention to his concerns and those expressed by Rep. Hal Rodgers and not be sandbagged by the spurious argument that hemp is going to save Ky. agriculture advanced, it seems to me, to further political careers.

  • John Riley wrote on February 19, 2013 11:05 AM :

    Nick, I’m usually very pleased with the reporting CN2, you and Ryan Alessi do. This story however has some glaring omissions.

    You’ve noted in the story that the “prominent farmer” Brian Furnish is a member of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, but failed to note that House Agricuture Committee Chair Rep. Tom McKee AND House Speaker Greg Stumbo also serve on the now 19 member commission. Also worthy of noting is the fact that both supported the creation of the Commission and were complicit in allowing the Commission to lay inactive and dormant for over a decade until Agriculture Commissioner James Comer moved to bring the Commission into compliance with state law.

    Isn’t it noteworthy and worth asking Speaker Stumbo and Chairman McKee if they indeed voted in favor of creating the Commission and what if any “study” they have done on the issue in the last dozen or so years since it was created and how many of the 3 meetings of the Commission they have attended since Commissioner Comer brought it into complaince with Kentucky law?

  • John Riley wrote on February 19, 2013 11:11 AM :

    Nick, sorry I should have noted that I also serve on the Hemp Commission.

  • sam pierce wrote on February 19, 2013 11:32 AM :

    The industrial hemp bill passed the senate by a huge bipartisan margin. Twelve of the 14 Democrats voted for it. If it came to a vote, it would pass the house by a large margin, also. Rep. Johnny Bell said that Stumbo has not told him how to vote. That is because, I fear, Stumbo only has to tell McKee not to allow a vote in committee. I live in McKee’s district. I know the Furnishes. They are a big Catholic farming family who always have lots of chidren and usually vote Democrat. However, if McKee refuses to allow a vote on this issue, and we can get a good Republican opponent in 2014, I believe the Furnishes and many other farmers will vote against McKee. McKee has never reached 60% when he has had Republican opposition. His victories have mainly come because of farmers’ support. If they turn against him because of him stonewalling the industial hemp bill, he may lose in 2014.

  • David Dunn wrote on February 19, 2013 12:24 PM :

    If the Kentucky State Police can’t tell the difference between marijuana and industrial hemp then neither can they tell the difference between marijuana and ditch weed – feral hemp. This has been a perennial problem of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). They report to Congress (Hal Rogers) that they destroyed so much marijuana when they really only destroyed ditch weed. But they bilk Congress for extra money, as do the Kentucky State Police.

    Are Kentucky’s elected officials unaware that whole houses can be made of hemp? Those houses would be lower cost, hurricane, tornado and earthquake resistant. PVC could be replaced with hemp cellulose and could be used for both incoming and outgoing water as it wouldn’t contain the toxins that PVC contains.

    Roofs could be made of hemp that would be flame resistant. Because hemp is a better insulator than is fiberglass, heating and cooling of hemp homes would be less expensive. Wood made from hemp also contains the same properties as do the other hemp products. Whole houses made of hemp is currently being done in South Africa.

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