Legislation establishing the regulatory framework for industrial hemp farming will get a second hearing after a vote was previously denied, the bill’s sponsor said Thursday.
Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, said a member of House Democratic leadership told him Senate Bill 50, which he sponsors, will be heard again by the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee.
He said he hopes the bill as is will come to a vote, but he has not been given any assurances. Rep. Tom McKee, chair of the House agriculture committee, has prepared a substitute calling for a field study with 10 acres of hemp by the University of Kentucky.
“I’ve never been approached to try to do that,” Hornback said when asked whether the two proposals could be blended. “I was presented a committee sub without an opportunity to comment or have input on what that sub would be.”
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer called a press conference Thursday after McKee, D-Cynthiana, denied a motion to vote on SB 50 as written during a committee meeting Wednesday.
Comer said the process embarrassed him. SB 50 would have cleared the committee if brought to a vote as written, he said, predicting the full House would approve the legislation with 75 or 80 votes.
“(McKee) had about seven votes, probably, for his committee sub,” Comer said. “But if you had voted on Senate Bill 50, it would have been almost unanimous in that committee.”
McKee said estimates that the bill would pass his committee are simply opinions.
He said he believes his committee substitute could get hemp in the ground before SB 50.
“I happen to know of a waiver that might exist right now,” he said, declining to elaborate. “… It may be a smaller amount than we’d like to see grown, but I think if we can get everybody working together, we might be able to do something.”
He could not say when the committee would consider SB 50.
Comer, however, said thousands of acres of industrial hemp could be grown under SB 50 should the federal government lift restrictions on the crop or grants Kentucky a waiver to grow it.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, have pledged to seek a federal waiver if SB 50 passes, Comer said, noting the University of Kentucky is exploring the crop’s economic viability in a report that should be ready in April.
“He’s wanting to plant 10 acres. That doesn’t create any jobs,” he said. “That’s not going to lure any processing facilities to come into the state.”
Brian Furnish, a Cynthiana tobacco farmer who sits on the Kentucky Hemp Commission, said he’s been contacted by many in McKee’s district who have been frustrated by SB 50’s proceedings in the House.
McKee may face a political challenge if the hemp issue stalls in his committee, Furnish said. A former agriculture advisor under Gov. Ernie Fletcher, Furnish declined to say whether he would run against McKee.
“At this point, all I can tell you is there’s a number of people calling me that are upset by the process and what’s taken place here,” he said. “I can’t make a commitment today that I’m running, but I can tell you that if this continues, someone good will be running.”
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has raised concerns with the market for industrial hemp, which is of the same plant species as marijuana and is banned under federal law.
He has drafted a letter asking Attorney General Jack Conway to confirm that Kentucky would automatically legalize hemp if the federal government lifts its ban.
“If that’s the case, then there’s not such a big hullabaloo about that issue,” he said.