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State Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville) found himself at the center of two of the most hotly debated topics in Frankfort on Monday.
Hornback is the sponsor of an industrial hemp bill and a telecommunications bill that both earned committee approval and appear to be heading to the Senate floor for a vote. Although both passed the committee votes by large margins, they appear to face opposition in the House.
Hornback, who is the chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee, received from the state’s federal legislators unprecedented bipartisan support for his bill that would allow industrial hemp to be grown in Kentucky.
In a hearing on Monday morning, Hornback welcomed U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Bowling Green) and Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Vanceburg) and John Yarmouth (D-Louisville) among other state officials to testify in favor of introducing industrial hemp to the agricultural scene in the commonwealth.
“I think all elected officials are interested in creating jobs,” Hornback said. “That way, we’re creating revenue through new sources, not through taxes.”
Paul told the committee that he didn’t believe the country should continue to export “profit to Canada. Why not legalize something that could produce jobs and probably will?”
Yarmouth echoed that statement.
“I’m convinced that industrialized hemp represents an enormous economic future for whomever is willing to take advantage of it,” he said. “And we must be positioned in a way to take advantage of it whenever legalization on the federal level occurs.”
The bill passed unanimously.
Detractors did testify that it will make law enforcement’s job harder, by having to contrast between hemp and it’s botanical cousin marijuana.
Rodney Brewer, Kentucky state police commissioner, told the committee that introducing industrial hemp would create problems.
“I’m sure that law enforcement will testify against the bill in the House,” Hornback said. “They have legitimate concerns but I think they’re being extreme. I spoke with the person that has in charge of industrial hemp in Canada, where it’s legal, and he said they haven’t found marijuana mixed in with the hemp since he’s been in charge in 1998. A lot of issues that they [law enforcement leaders] have are unfounded.”
One change was made to the bill shortly before it was introduced, a change to ensure that those caught carrying marijuana could not just claim that it was hemp. Instead, the bill makes it illegal for hemp to be transported by anyone other than licensed growers or transporters, and a copy of the license would have to be carried at all times.
But despite what Kentucky’s leaders do, the federal government will need to lift a ban on industrial hemp before it can be grown in Kentucky.
Hornback said he can’t predict what’s going to happen on the federal level, but he does think Kentucky should be at the forefront.
“Representatives Yarmouth and Massie are co-sponsoring a bill, and Senator Paul is working on a bill, they’re going to push as hard as they can for this,” he said. “But they want us to pass it on a state level first, so we can be prepared to take advantage of it.”
Hornback said the committee had its second reading Tuesday, and he hopes the bill will get to the Senate floor by today or Thursday for a vote.
Hornback’s other big piece of controversial legislation was heard Monday evening, when his telecommunications bill was considered and approved, 9-1, by the Senate Economic Development, Tourism and Labor Committee, with Sen. Julian Carroll (D-Frankfort) casting the lone no vote.
This bill is similar to one that Hornback introduced and withdrew last year, which would have allowed communications companies to stop providing land-line phone service to new customers if the area has adequate cell phone service or high-speed internet service that is capable of providing phone service.
However, the main difference this year is a “carve-out” feature.
“What that means,” Hornback said, “is that any community, which is the prefix numbers when you’re dealing with phone companies, that has less than five thousand households would be exempt from the new rules.”
So phone companies – which in Kentucky largely consist of AT&T, Cincinnati Bell and Windstream – would have to continue to be the carrier of last resort in those areas, meaning they would have to provide land-line service to those communities.
“There would be two or three communities in Shelby County that would be covered by that carve-out feature,” Hornback said.
The idea behind allowing phone companies to stop offering new services, Hornback said, is that the phone companies would use those savings to invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure in the state.
Hornback said he believes bill will get a vote on the Senate floor and that it will be passed.
Bills to the House
But gaining approval in the Republican-dominated Senate isn’t Hornback’s biggest issue facing both bills.
The Democrat-led House doesn’t appear to favor either bill, but Hornback said he believes House members can be brought around.
“I think the House is much more comfortable with the telecommunications bill this year because of the carve-out feature,” he said. “The speaker [Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg)] really likes the carve out.”
Hornback said he’s less sure about the industrial hemp bill.
“I haven’t talked to a lot of House members about he bill, but I’ve been listening to their comments,” he said. “I think they’re softening on the idea.”
He said he had not heard of any potential amendments for the bills, as of yet.