Politics & Government

Kansas Senate chairman cuts off questions about Koch funding at energy hearing

The Koch Industries headquarters are on 37th Street in Wichita.
The Koch Industries headquarters are on 37th Street in Wichita. File photo

A Kansas Senate committee chairman cut off a line of questioning Tuesday about whether Koch Industries had funded an economic study criticizing the state’s renewable energy mandate during a hearing on a bill that would eliminate the mandate.

Lawmakers have wrangled in recent years about whether to keep the renewable portfolio standard, a policy adopted in 2009 that requires utility companies to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

The policy’s defenders say it has created jobs by allowing the state’s wind energy to develop. Its detractors say it undermines the free market, and they warn of electric rate increases.

Ryan Yonk, a research fellow at Utah State University’s Institute of Political Economy, presented research before the Senate Utilities Committee that calls into question assertions that the renewable standard is leading to job growth. The study, published last month, contends that by the end of 2014, the state had gained 5,500 fewer jobs than it would have had the standard not been adopted.

Environmental groups have called into question the objectivity of the research. Utah State is the fifth-biggest recipient of money from Koch-linked foundations among all colleges since 2012, taking in $170,000, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The lead researcher on the project with Yonk was Randy Simmons, whose official title is Charles G. Koch professor of political economy.

The two main groups that have backed efforts to repeal the standard in recent years are the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, both of which have ties to Wichita’s Koch Industries.

Koch, which has fossil fuel holdings, confirmed in October that it was part of a “broad coalition opposed to the state’s RPS.”

At the hearing on SB 253, which would eliminate the renewable standard in 2016, Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, pressed Yonk on who funded the institute’s research. He was cut off by Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, who called the line of questioning inappropriate.

Olson explained his rationale after the hearing.

“We need to be talking about the bill, not the research,” Olson said. “Who funds their research? Who funds the wind research? It could be liberal groups doing the same thing. But I don’t think that’s important that you should know all their funding, and I don’t think they should have to provide it.

“And I don’t want in my committee someone pointing fingers at one group or another group,” he added.

Hawk said he was very surprised that Olson cut off the question.

Moti Rieber, an environmental activist who attended the hearing, said Olson’s refusal to let the questions be answered was troubling.

“The fact that Koch gives money to this institution and then he comes here to testify on the RPS is something the body should know about. And the fact that the chairman was so quick to shut that line of questioning down – what do I want to say about it? – it’s questionable at best,” Rieber said. “It throws more doubt into the legitimacy of research.”

Yonk was willing to talk about who funds his research in an interview after the hearing. He said the Charles Koch Foundation is among those who have provided funding to the institute.

“We’re funded by a wide variety of sources, both foundations and industry … so it’s a mixed bag of funding,” he said. “Absolutely, the Charles Koch Foundation has provided funding to the Institute of Political Economy.”

Yonk also acknowledged that researchers must take steps to “conduct the study at arm’s length from the funding. … Otherwise, the research could be tainted.”

He said accepting outside money is a necessity for researchers but that it is foolish to think that one set of funders is more biased than another.

“All funders have an agenda when they’re giving money, and the question is, how do you maintain academic freedom and integrity in spite of what an individual funder’s opinion might be?” he said.

Kimberly Svaty, lobbyist for the Wind Coalition, said the renewable standard has resulted in real job growth both within the wind industry and outside it. For example, Mars, the company that makes M&M candies, decided to build a factory in Topeka partly because of the state’s renewable energy policy, she said.

“Our number of 13,000 new jobs isn’t just a calculated number. It’s calculated based off the number of jobs that have been created in Kansas, and that ranges from the manufacturing jobs to the engineers … to the aggregate producers, the cement producers,” Svaty said.

She also said having the policy on the books will help the state meet federal emissions standards.

Hearings on the bill will continue Wednesday.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.