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Sam Brownback Supported Wind Farms in Kansas—Until the Koch Brothers Changed His Mind

Alex Wong/Getty Images

In Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback has always enjoyed the support of Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries. They have been the single greatest contributor to his campaigns. The Koch network of funded groups—which includes Americans for Prosperity and Kansas’s Chamber of Commerce—boosted Brownback’s successful effort in the August 2012 Republican primaries for the State Senate to oust Republican moderates who had opposed his legislation. 

Have the Kochs’ contributions ensured Brownback’s loyalty? Brownback, along with other conservatives, might argue that his relationship to Charles and David Koch merely represents a convergence of interest and principle. But in Kansas, there is one issue for which the Kochs’ money has not reinforced Brownback’s views, but actually changed them. Under pressure from the Kochs and Koch Industries, who oppose measures to shift American energy use away from fossil fuels, Brownback has reversed his support for encouraging Kansas’s wind industry.

In Kansas, wind power is the main form of renewable energy. Twenty wind farms, accounting for $7 billion in investment, dot western Kansas and provide 11.4 percent of Kansas’s energy. According to the American Council on Renewable Energy, “Kansas has one of the most promising wind resource potentials in the country.” The wind industry is popular in the state, including among farmers, who receive about $8 million annually in lease payments. 

The growth of Kansas’s wind industry was sparked by legislation in 2009 that required the state’s utilities to devote 20 percent of their energy production to renewables by 2020. Democratic Governor Mark Parkinson, who had replaced Kathleen Sebelius when she left for Washington, signed this Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) into law, and Brownback, who was elected in November 2010, enthusiastically backed it. In the Senate, Brownback had co-sponsored with New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman a federal RPS. After his election as governor, his spokeswoman, Sherrene Jones-Sontag, said that Brownback backed the RPS and that “on numerous occasions has praised Governor Parkinson for his support of the wind industry.”

Brownback remained supportive of the Kansas RPS through the first three years of his term, but then the political winds began to shift. In 2013, the Koch brothers and their network of groups launched a national campaign against the federal production tax credit (PTC) for financing new projects in renewable energy. (Koch Industries began as and still is, among other thngs, a fossil-fuel producer.) In Kansas, the Koch network launched a similar campaign, led by Americans for Prosperity, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, against the state’s RPS. The Koch network called for freezing the RPS requirement at 15 percent in 2016. From January through April, Americans for Prosperity spent $383,000 on media ads calling for repeal of the RPS.  

Koch Industries’ lobbyists also threw their weight around in the legislature. In 2013, the Kansas House Committee on Energy and the Environment held hearings on the Koch proposal to gut the RPS. Twelve Kansas businesses stepped forward to testify against repeal of the RPS, while the opposition consisted of two Koch-linked think tanks and a former legislator. Except for Kansas’s oil and gas industry, the state’s businesses see the wind industry as a boon to the economy. One Republican legislator, Scott Schwab, was assailed by the Koch lobbyists for failing to back the bill, even though he eventually did.  In an email, Schwab recounted what happened when he ran into Koch lobbyists Mike Morgan and Mark Nichols at an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting in Topeka. According to Schwab:

Mark took his business card, shoved it into my ribs on the left side and said from now on, if I wanted to talk to Jon Small [the main Koch lobbyist] I needed to call him first for permission. Mike then aggressively let me know how horrible I was for not voting for the RPS (renewable portfolio standards) bill (which I did vote for). I informed him it is hard to vote for a bill where Kansas businesses don’t want it passed, and only think tanks do. I needed the Kansas business community to say they really wanted this.

That spring, the Senate passed the Koch bill, but the House narrowly defeated it—a result of almost unanimous public and business support for the RPS. In June, The Koch-funded Kansas Chamber of Commerce retaliated by endorsing three opponents to the Republican House members who voted against the bill. The Chamber also refused to endorse Schwab, presumably because while voting for the bill, he had been critical of it.

Sometime around then, Brownback, who had continued to praise Kansas’s wind industry, changed his position and did so in a way that revealed that he was caving into pressure from the Kochs.

On the morning of July 23, Brownback held an informal meeting with reporters at the Capitol. He told them that he now supported phasing out the RPS. “I think you need a four-year phase out,” he said. He suggested that proponents of the RPS work out a compromise with opponents. He explained that he had “a lot of people pushing me—a clear reference to the Koch network. “Get something agreed to between the wind people and the people who are opposed to this,” Brownback said.

That afternoon, however, Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said that the governor had been misunderstood and that he was really talking about the federal production tax credit and not the RPS. Hawley was suggesting that Brownback still supported the RPS, but Kansas Chamber of Commerce president Mike O’Neal confirmed that the compromise Brownback had proposed “was definitely RPS.” In fact, due partly to pressure from the Kochs, Congress had already let the federal tax credit expire. Brownback was just trying to avoid the public reaction to abandonment of RPS, but he had in fact changed his position.

That became clear in early September when he again called for phasing out the RPS. And it became clear again at the debate with Democratic candidate Paul Davis when, in response to Davis’s charge that he was no longer backing the RPS, he called for replacing it.

The Koch network scored a victory with Brownback, but it still hasn't won over the Kansas legislature. In the Republican primaries in August, the House members targeted by Koch network survived. That’s testimony to continuing business support for and the extensive popularity of the RPS. But if Brownback, with help from the Koch Brothers and the groups they fund, wins re-election, it’s likely that he’ll cajole the legislature into modifying if not gutting Kanas's program for encouraging utilities to shift from fossil fuels to wind and other renewables.