Delay in power plants costs SWK college $2 million grant

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Posted: Tuesday, March 3, 2009 1:07 am

Bill Draper

Associated Press Writer

A southwest Kansas community college has lost a nearly $2 million federal grant because of delays in state approval for two new coal-fired power plants proposed by Sunflower Electric Power Corp.

Garden City Community College officials said they were told Monday morning to return the Department of Labor grant that would have trained workers to help build the plants. The same day, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius — who vetoed three bills last year that would have allowed the $3.6 billion project to go forward — was announced as President Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of health and human services.

“I’m very disappointed,” GCCC president Carol Ballantyne said. “We worked hard to get the grant and had been working hard to get them to hold off until the decision was made. But the roller coaster in Topeka, with the veto and no veto override ... it’s just been a roller coaster.”

Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Rod Bremby refused in October 2007 to issue Sunflower Electric Power Corp. a needed air quality permit for the plants. He cited concerns about potential carbon dioxide emissions, and Sebelius agreed with him.

Supporters last year couldn’t muster enough support to override the governor’s vetoes.

The House on Friday approved another measure that would allow construction of the plants, but it still was five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override another promised veto.

House Speaker Mike O’Neal said he wishes the Labor Department would have waited a little longer before pulling the grant.

“It’s an example of opportunities that continue to be lost in delaying these types of projects from moving forward,” O’Neal said. “These types of losses we’re aware of, but there also are losses we’ll never know that we were even in line for because of the regulatory uncertainty we have.”

Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican, said he was disappointed that the governor’s “shortsightedness” had cost the college $2 million that it could have used to improve the region’s economy.

“It’s really ironic to me that we’re talking about the stimulus package and they take back money that would allow us to stimulate our part of the state,” Morris said. “It makes no sense.”

He said a Senate measure allowing the plants was passed out of committee on Monday and will be taken up on the Senate floor either late this week or early next.

He said he doesn’t know whether Sebelius’ departure will make it easier for Democrats who had opposed the plants out of loyalty to the governor — rather than strong feelings against the project — to change their minds. But he figures Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson, who will take over if Sebelius is confirmed to the HHS post, will veto whatever measure comes out of the Legislature.

“Were going to do what we can to press forward assuming we will have another veto to deal with,” he said.

Ballantyne said the three-year grant, which was designed to train 300 people in various aspects of construction, could have helped resolve a shortage of such workers in southwest Kansas after the coal plants were finished.

“People were going to be brought in from elsewhere anyway, but we were intending for the grant to put some locals in seven of the skill areas,” she said. “We were hoping that not only would we be training people that the big company would bring in, but also some of our own so they would stay.”

Ballantyne said the news Monday came during a scheduled call with the Labor Department to discuss the possibility of extending the grant, which was awarded last March.

“I guess it’s not a total surprise and I understand the Labor Department’s perspective,” she said. “But I want to emphasize that we did not give up or turn back the grant. This is simply a matter of the protracted political process affecting the timeline, and we’re not happy with the way this has worked out.”

Morris said the entire state, not just southwest Kansas, loses out because the grant money was pulled.

“If there was anyone that would make efficient use of a grant like that, it would be Garden City Community College and the Garden City area,” Morris said. “I know they would make the maximum use of that money, and for it to leave because of the shortsightedness of some folks, that’s very disappointing.”

Sebelius was in Washington D.C. Monday for the announcement of her nomination for the HHS post and was unavailable for comment.

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