The hemp bill is back on track, at least for now.
House Agriculture and Small Business Committee chairman Tom McKee said Monday that a proposal to regulate hemp farming in Kentucky was expected to win approval from his committee Wednesday.
"I anticipate a very strong vote. It could be a unanimous vote," the Cynthiana Democrat said.
But House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, reiterated that he opposed the hemp bill as unnecessary, casting doubt on a full House vote even as supporters hailed an incremental step forward.
"I'm not for the bill," Stumbo told reporters. "I don't think we need it."
Meanwhile, McKee said he has dropped the idea of a substitute bill, which would have scrapped a licensing framework for farmers and replaced it with a research project at the University of Kentucky. He said he did not plan to file amendments, signalling the original version of Senate Bill 50 could get the up or down vote that supporters have sought.
McKee's move came after Sen. Paul Hornback, the bill's sponsor, and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer held a news conference last week to accuse McKee of blocking the bill. McKee's committee heard two hours of testimony about the bill Wednesday, but McKee rejected Republican efforts to force a vote.
McKee announced his support for the bill Monday at a lunch with about 75 farmers in Cynthiana.
"He said he would vote for it himself," said Brian Furnish, a Cynthiana farmer who criticized McKee's handling of the bill in committee last week.
Amendments still might be offered from committee members, McKee warned.
"I certainly can't control the members," he said. "There's no 24-hour rule. I'll take an amendment on the spot."
Comer, a Republican, tweeted Monday that he had "had a very productive meeting" with McKee in Cynthiana and that the bill would get a vote.
"I'm very excited," Comer said in an interview. "I feel good about its chances of passing the committee. No one's contacted me about any amendments."
McKee said he thought there was widespread support for Hornback's version of the bill, which would allow Kentucky farmers to apply for a license to grow hemp if the federal government legalizes the crop. Members of Kentucky's congressional delegation intend to lobby for a waiver to let the state serve as a pilot project for growing hemp, which could attract hemp processors to the state.
"I anticipate it passing. I think our members have digested and gotten the information now," McKee said Monday. "We certainly don't want to stand in the way of, as the commissioner says, thousands of jobs and thousands of acres of hemp being grown."
McKee said he did not know when or whether the bill would be called for a vote by the full House. SB 50 passed the Republican-led Senate 31-6 last month.
Comer said the bill would pass the House if it met no more roadblocks, but House Stumbo has expressed doubts about the legislation. Gov. Steve Beshear also has said he shares concerns raised by Kentucky State Police that allowing hemp farming would make marijuana eradication more difficult.
On Feb. 27, Stumbo requested an opinion from Attorney General Jack Conway on whether the legislation was necessary given Kentucky's existing hemp statute, which requires the state to adopt federal rules.
"My question is whether this statute, as currently enacted, allows Kentucky farmers to grow hemp when and if that practice is allowed by the federal government?" Stumbo wrote to Conway. "It is my contention that Kentucky is already poised to adopt the federal hemp-growing rules as soon as they come into existence and that Kentucky has no need for additional state bureaucracy involving permits issued by a state Hemp Czar."
Stumbo said Monday he did not know whether SB 50 would get a vote on the House floor if it is approved by the agriculture committee.
"If Speaker Stumbo lets the bill come for a vote, it will pass 80-20," Comer said. "I can't imagine, after all they went through when they tried not to let it go up for a vote last week, that they would block it again. ... This is one bill everyone understands. If it does not come up for a vote, it will symbolize everything that's wrong with Frankfort."
House Agriculture and Small Business Committee meeting
What: Committee has hemp legislation on the agenda.
When: 8 a.m. March 6
Where: Capitol Annex Room 129, 700 Capitol Ave. Loop, Frankfort
To watch online: Ket.org/legislature/watch_live.php?chamber=house