TOPEKA — Legislation introduced in the House and Senate opened the gate Thursday to countywide public votes on the type of large-scale poultry operation Tyson Foods proposed for Tonganoxie but abandoned amid a public backlash.
Rep. Jim Karleskint, R-Tonganoxie, and Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said the bills shouldn’t be viewed as anti-agriculture because the goal was to expand state law to allow public scrutiny of poultry operations in the same manner hog and dairy facilities could be subject to public vote.
“Ensuring Kansans have a voice in these matters is critical to rebuilding their trust in state government,” Karleskint said. “We are working together to make sure what happened in Tonganoxie this past fall doesn’t happen again.”
In September, Tyson Foods responded to widespread tension in Leavenworth County by dropping plans for a $320 million chicken production and processing operation outside Tonganoxie. It would have provided 1,600 jobs, process 1.2 million chickens weekly and require 300 to 400 chicken-raising houses on farms and ranches in a 50-mile radius.
Scott Beyer, associate professor of animal science and industry at Kansas State University, said broadening the public-vote option to the poultry industry would discourage companies from locating in the state.
“Absolutely,” he said in an interview. “The companies will choose to work in states where there is excitement about the opportunities.”
After pulling out of the Kansas deal, Tyson Foods reached agreement in November to build the poultry plant in western Kentucky.
Holland said the citizen-petition option would improve transparency of county-permitted poultry production and processing facilities.
“These bills allow citizens to submit protest petitions and if a valid protest petition receives enough signatures, the issue would be put to a special county election vote,” he said.
Announcement of the project by then-Gov. Sam Brownback and Tyson Foods officials elicited a “No Tyson in Tongy” campaign. About 2,500 people attended a rally at a Tonganoxie park and objected on economic, social and environmental grounds.
“No one. Not the citizens of Tonganoxie. Not the residents of Leavenworth County. Not even the state legislative delegation had any inkling a poultry plant was being proposed for southern Leavenworth County,” Holland said.