Senate bill sets local government conflict-of-interest standard for Kansas solar, wind projects

Idea viewed by skeptics as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘problematic’ wouldn’t apply to state legislators

By: - February 3, 2023 12:23 pm
Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, proposes passage of a bill requiring local government officials follow a standard of confict-of-interest disclosure related to wind and solar project developments not required of state legislators. (Jill Hummels for the Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, proposes passage of a bill requiring local government officials follow a standard of confict-of-interest disclosure related to wind and solar project developments not required of state legislators. (Jill Hummels for the Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — School teacher Penny Massing is convinced the 600 megawatt High Banks Wind farm was approved by the three Republic County commissioners despite their potential conflicts of interest.

Massing, who lives on a 40-acre homestead in Cuba, Kansas, told state senators Thursday she would welcome a Kansas law requiring candidates and elected officials in local government disclose substantial financial interests in solar or wind projects. A bill pending in the Senate would prohibit elected officials with personal or family ties to NextEra’s High Banks farm, or any other wind or solar development in the state, from voting to approve plans for those projects. However, the bill would allow those officials to vote against solar and wind projects.

Under Senate Bill 86, any local government official violating the law would be forced to resign. Confirmation of an undisclosed conflict of interest could void a local government’s agreement with solar and wind developers. The proposed disclosure, ouster and contract termination statute wouldn’t apply to oil, natural gas or nuclear projects.

“This bill is very needed in our Legislature,” Massing said. “Our entire project, the largest project in the state, was negotiated and passed by just three people. The three commissioners for our county met with lawyers and officials in executive sessions over several months to decide on the fate of our county.”

She alleged two county commissioners had relatives leasing land for turbines, substations or other parts of the High Banks development in north-central Kansas. The third commissioner has a brother who worked as a wind energy technician, she said.

“They were absolutely partial to the project. The citizens of our county tried every avenue we knew of to have the decision be made by the county as a whole, but we were blocked at every turn,” Massing said.

Representatives of the Kansas Association of Counties, the Kansas County Commissioners Association and the Advanced Power Alliance oppose the bill.

The legislation was introduced by Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican who has fueled legislative scrutiny and opposition to wind and solar operations. He said he heard “horror stories” about county commissioners who signed renewable energy lease deals and subsequently took part in county commission votes on those projects.

“In some cases,” Thompson said, “it was a family member of the official that had signed the lease, and influence peddling was involved. Think Hunter Biden. We expect government officials to act in the best interest of their constituents, placing personal benefit aside when making important decisions. Even the appearance of impropriety undermines the public trust.”

In the Kansas Legislature, a senator or representative with a conflict of interest can participate in votes on bills tied to that conflict. There is no mandate legislators disclose personal conflicts. Legislators have participated in votes at the Capitol after publicly revealing occupational or financial conflicts prior to votes in committee meetings or during floor debate. In the alternative, some lawmakers voluntarily choose to recuse themselves.

Thompson’s bill would apply to solar and wind projects capable of producing more than 500 killowatt hours of energy. The definition of conflict of interest would cover a candidate and a government employee’s spouse and relatives. The list of relatives would include a parent, child, son- or daughter-in-law, uncle, aunt as well as first and second cousins. It would include anyone in an “intimate relationship” with a candidate or official.

Mike Taylor, representing the Kansas County Commissioners Association, said a local elected official wouldn’t necessarily know which landowners or relatives were part of lease agreements with businesses interested in deploying wind turbines or solar arrays.

“This measure makes as much sense as saying a young lawyer who just graduated from Washburn cannot go to work for legislative research or the revisors of statutes because their second cousin is a representative in the House or a senator in the Senate. Ridiculous,” he said.

Jay Hall, legislative policy director and general counsel at the Kansas Association of Counties, said the organization supported transparency in terms of disclosure by government officials of conflicts of interests on any subject. He said the organization opposed the Senate bill because it would prompt an abstention by elected officials in a narrow range of economic development projects.

“It could hamstring county operations,” Hall said. “Counties, particularly smaller counties, could have multiple commissioners, planning and zoning members, public works officials or other county personnel barred from participating in the process either because they or a relative has an interest in the project.”

He said a provision of the bill allowing a local government official to oppose, but not support, a project might not pass legal challenge.

Advanced Power Alliance lobbyist Josh Svaty, who serves an organization of more than 40 energy companies, investors and consumers, said it was unclear in the legislation why solar and wind industries were singled out for extraordinary disclosure and sunshine obligations.

He questioned the exemption allowing conflicted elected officials to exclusively act against solar and wind developments. He said the bill’s poorly defined reference to intimate relationships was “problematic at best.”

“It is feasible in a lightly populated county to have all three county commissioners or even all elected county officials prohibited from taking action on a proposed wind farm just because of distant cousins having land that has been leased,” Svaty said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.