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Lobbying outlook hazy

1/18/2008

By CHRIS GREEN

Harris News Service

TOPEKA -- A controversy about coal-fired power plants proposed for southwest Kansas touched off a record-setting advertising fight between rival lobbying groups seeking to sway public opinion last year.

With lawmakers set to weigh in on the issue during the legislative session that commenced this week, though, special-interest groups aren't saying whether they'll be ramping up their efforts yet again.

In October, State Health and Environment Secretary Rob Bremby denied air-quality permits for Sunflower Electric's proposal to add two new generators near its existing plant at Holcomb because of global warming concerns. The decision helped spark the battle between a group funded by a natural gas company and another linked to the coal industry.

A $405,000 set of newspaper ads opposing the coal plants by Know Your Power Kansas, largely funded by Oklahoma natural gas giant Chesapeake Energy, broke a state record for lobbyist spending reported by a single group or company.

A pro-coal organization, Kansans for Affordable Energy, also spent $100,000 on their own effort.

As a result of their combined efforts, total spending by lobbyists in Kansas will top $1 million in 2007, the first year ever the state has breached that mark.

However, representatives of each organization said this week there were no plans right now to continue those high-profile efforts during the session.

Michael Grimaldi, a Kansas spokesman for Chesapeake Energy, said the Know Your Power group would continue to be involved in the state's energy debate but couldn't say how active it would be.

Know Your Power describes itself as a growing coalition of "concerned doctors, health organizations, educators, citizens, businesses and students."

"I don't know that any advertising is planned at this time," Grimaldi said. "We will assess the situation as events occur and developments proceed."

Bob Kreutzer, a Garden City resident who is campaign chairman of Kansans for Affordable Energy, said he believed his group adequately spread its message, which argues coal power is needed to keep energy affordable.

He said he expected to see his group take on a "perimeter role" in the debate, leaving the Alliance for Sound Energy Policy, recently started by Sunflower, at the forefront.

Yet Brian Moline, the alliance's chairman, said he doesn't expect his group to be a large lobbying presence.

The alliance's list of members also includes the Finney County Board of Commissioners, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Kansas Farm Bureau and two labor unions, in addition to Sunflower's member electric cooperatives.

Moline said he expects the group to offer testimony to the Legislature on energy policy, with an emphasis on balancing the development of renewable energy in the state with ensuring the state has "base-generation capacity."

"I certainly don't anticipate us spending huge amounts of money or maybe any money at all," said Moline, a former chairman of the Kansas Corporation Commission. "We will be taking our message to the Legislature, and our intent would be to monitor legislation and see if that fits within our agenda and our program."

Much to gain?

Lobbying is defined in state statute as promoting or opposing, in any manner, action or non-action by the Legislature on any legislative matter. Groups that spend $100 or more in a year are required to register and file reports with the state.

Although Statehouse efforts often consist of organizations or corporations treating legislators to buffets, drinks, dinners or other small freebies, special interests have ramped up their costlier spending on mass media in recent years.

Such efforts frequently try to enlist citizens in a group's lobbying effort by asking them to contact their legislators about the issue being highlighted in the commercial.

In 2006, lobbying groups spent $412,000 on media campaigns after spending just $108,000 in 2004 and $24,500 in 2005.

A majority of the spending in 2006 came from just two organizations, which successfully helped pass a law making it easier for telecommunications companies, such as AT&T, to offer video services that compete with cable television.

However, Know Your Power's spending of $405,000 last year nearly topped the 2006 total all by itself. The group did so with just one advertising purchase, a double-page advertisement in several Kansas newspapers in November that attempted to rebut claims made by its pro-coal adversary.

The spot included a request for readers to call their legislators "to let them know where you stand." That statement prompted state ethics officials to consider the ad lobbying, over the objections of the group, partially because a legislative committee was reviewing Bremby's ruling at the time.

However, Know Your Power also ran an earlier series of full-page newspaper ads, as well as TV commercials, that didn't include such a call to action, weren't classified as lobbying and didn't have to be reported publicly to state officials. When asked, Grimaldi declined to reveal what Know Your Power spent on the other spots.

"We aren't required to disclose that and choose not to," Grimaldi said of the educational campaign.

However, Kreutzer estimates Know Your Power's total spending on television and newspaper advertising last fall probably cost more than $1 million.

"I guess what it tells me is that the gas company has a phenomenal amount at stake to gain if this coal plant does not become approved," Kreutzer said.

Yet Kreutzer acknowledged the coal industry also stands to gain or lose in the fight over Sunflower's proposed plants, too.

Nearly 83 percent of the contributions to Kansans for Affordable Energy came from Peabody Investments Corp., a part of the world's largest private coal company, which gave $120,000. Sunflower also provided $25,000, or 17 percent of the group's funds.