By RONNIE ELLIS / CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — The sponsor of legislation to set up a regulatory framework for hemp cultivation Wednesday asked Gov. Steve Beshear to sign the bill into law.
Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, sponsored Senate Bill 50, which originally would have authorized the Department of Agriculture to license and monitor hemp cultivation should the federal government either grant a waiver to Kentucky to grow the crop or legalize the biological relative of marijuana.
Kentucky used to be a major hemp producer in the 19th century and again during World War II, but as part of the federal effort to clamp down on marijuana, cultivation of the crop has been prohibited by the federal government.
Hornback’s biggest backer of the bill was Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, like Hornback a Republican and someone often mentioned as a potential future gubernatorial candidate. While the bill sailed out of the Republican-controlled Senate, it was opposed by many law enforcement agencies, principally the Kentucky State Police and UNITE, a drug education, treatment and enforcement agency in eastern Kentucky backed by Republican Congressman Hal Rogers of Somerset.
The bill ran into trouble in the Democratic-controlled House and Beshear said he shared some of the concerns of the Kentucky State Police that hemp cultivation might complicate marijuana detection and eradication efforts.
But a compromise version of the bill passed on the final night of the 2013 session and was sent to Beshear. Because the legislature ended its 2013 session that night, Beshear could veto the bill and lawmakers would have no opportunity to override that veto. Beshear could also allow the measure to become law without his signature.
Hornback met with Beshear Wednesday and moments later said he asked him to sign the bill.
“I don’t think he’ll veto it, but his signature is important to me,” Hornback said as he left Beshear’s office.
Comer and Republican U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul along with Congressmen John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, have said they’ll seek a waiver from the Obama administration to let Kentucky grow the crop.
Hornback said that might be a harder sell if the governor of the state declines to sign the bill. Hornback said he got no definitive answer from Beshear.
“I’ve made a request that he sign it,” Hornback said, “but I haven’t gotten an answer either way.”
Comer has also asked Beshear to sign the bill. The governor has until Friday to make a decision. If he doesn’t act, the bill will become law without his signature.
Beshear said Wednesday he hasn’t decided what to do on SB50.
“The hemp bill, SB50, was amended and passed in the last hour of session,” Beshear said. “I continue to review the bill and will talk with law enforcement before making any decision.”
Comer was in Lexington Wednesday where he announced the Agriculture Department will shut down a $3.1 million fuel testing lab, which was established by his predecessor Richie Farmer.
Farmer asked the legislature to fund the lab in 2008, saying it would make money through testing fuels for other states and for testing pesticides. But Comer said Wednesday no contracts existed with other states when he assumed office in January 2012.
So he created a task force to determine if the lab could create revenue and the group concluded it could not be made profitable. Shutting it down will save the state approximately $600,000 annually he said.
“We were spending a lot of tax dollars for very, very little benefit,” Commissioner Comer said. “There never was a business plan that would make the lab viable.”
Farmer was recently hit with 42 charges of alleged ethics violations by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission following irregularities identified by an audit requested by Comer and conducted by state Auditor Adam Edelen.
The commission also charged five former department employees and one current employee, Deputy Commissioner Bruce Harper, who worked for Farmer and was kept on by Comer. But Comer placed Harper on administrative leave after the ethics charges.
On Wednesday, Comer said he’s asked Harper to resign or be fired.
Harper was charged with soliciting donations for the secretaries of state conference from entities regulated by the Department of Agriculture and for intervening in two cases of fines against a farmer and a grain dealer.
Harper did not return a voice mail message asking for comment.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.