Cross Koch? Then cross off support from Kansas Chamber of Commerce

06/19/2014 4:41 PM

06/19/2014 10:20 PM

Poor Scott Schwab. The Republican legislator from Olathe thought he had a permanent relationship going with the rich and powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce. And now, jilted.

Unlike some of his colleagues, who honor the chamber’s wishes out of fear of retribution, Schwab is described as a true believer in the entity and its agenda.

And so it came as quite a shock when the chamber’s political action committee declined to endorse Schwab over his primary opponent, a former Libertarian candidate named John Wilson.

Schwab is not one to take rejection lightly. He fired off a lengthy email to his “Kansas Chamber of Commerce friends,” and it has lit up the political hotline.

Although chamber officials simply told him that his attitude was “not right,” Schwab thinks his non-endorsement was retaliation for questions he asked two sessions ago about a bill to roll back a requirement that utility companies use renewable sources for a percentage of their energy portfolios.

Chamber officials say Schwab is wrong, but won’t explain why they dumped him. Regardless, Schwab’s widely distributed email provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Kansas Legislature.

Although polling shows most Kansans support clean energy, getting rid of renewable rules is a priority of Koch Industries of Wichita and its sprawling political apparatus. But in 2013 it was fairly new.

When the chairman of the Kansas House Energy Committee, Dennis Hedke of Wichita, asked Schwab if he would support adjusting the state’s RPS, or renewable portfolio standard, Schwab wondered what he was talking about. He reasonably told Hedke, a geophysicist with close ties to Koch Industries, that he would have to listen to testimony on the bill.

Ah, testimony. So revealing. As Schwab recounted, representatives from about a dozen Kansas businesses opposed changing the standards. Speaking in support were a former state legislator and officials from two out-of-state think tanks.

“That raised a concern with me,” Schwab said in his email. “So I said, ‘I have noticed a trend with ...think tanks taking over promoting ideas...and they don’t have skin in the game. Where are the businesses that want us to actually pass this bill?”

Great question! Schwab said he was told by a lobbyist from Koch Industries, which produces oil, fertilizer and other items, that only the Kochs wanted to expunge the renewable standards at that time.

The email goes on to describe Schwab’s later encounter with two Koch officials, who “aggressively” berated him for questioning the bill. And since the Kansas Chamber of Commerce is merely a big cog in the Koch political machine, Schwab became persona non grata.

Mind you, Schwab did not vote against the energy bill. In fact, he voted to advance it. He appears to have engendered ire merely by asking a few pertinent questions — doing his job, in other words.

His concerns were exactly on point. Legislatures in Kansas, Missouri and elsewhere are preoccupied with matters that have nothing to do with the welfare of communities or citizens. Think “right to work” bills, measures to privatize public education and proposals to weaken environmental protections. These and others are the priorities of the American Legislative Exchange Council and other groups that exist to advance corporate agendas. Look at the funding of these groups and most often you’ll find Koch Industries.

Republican sycophants protest that unions, environmental activists and other liberal groups are also seeking influence in state legislatures. But in heavily Republican states like Missouri and Kansas, those groups are playing defense. The corporate interests are moving the ball.

In Koch-influenced Kansas, the corporate minders apparently regard lawmakers as hired hands to do their bidding. One would think — or at least hope — that more legislators might take offense at that.

Reach Barbara Shelly at 816-234-4594 or Twitter: bshelly.

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