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Ky. lawmakers pull bill to aid Century smelter

FRANKFORT, Ky. - The odds have stacked up against a bill that's intended to keep a Western Kentucky aluminum smelter open by lowering its electric bills.

The bill's sponsor on Thursday pulled the proposal from the House floor, preventing lawmakers from voting on the matter. Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Owensboro, said too much misinformation surrounded the legislation.

He and several lawmakers then spent more than an hour on the floor discussing the merits of the bill, particularly its aim to preserve well-paying jobs and the local economy.

Century Aluminum has said it will close its Hawesville smelter - and lay off hundreds of workers - unless it can buy cheaper electricity.

The bill would allow the smelter to buy cheaper electricity from the local utility or on the open market. Opponents argue that lawmakers shouldn't interfere with a business matter, specifically the contract negotiations between the smelter and the power company.

House members have four days left in the legislative session to bring the bill to a vote. Some were talking to Gov. Steve Beshear Thursday night in an effort to draw his support. He has criticized the bill, saying it's a political solution to a business problem.

Thompson told his fellow lawmakers his bill would not lead to deregulation of the state's electricity market or cause electricity rates to soar. He said rates will increase if the plant shuts down but increase less if the plant stays in business.

"Nobody would lose their jobs," he said.

Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg, said he was concerned about the impact the deal could have on the electric rates of his residential constituents. He also questioned the precedent that such a law would set in Kentucky.

"Now, I don't want to see jobs leave this state. Period. Exclamation point," Greer said. "However, This is a contract negotiation. I don't think this is a legislative issue. Now think about the slippery slope that we are opening right here. Who is next to say, 'Well, we didn't get a good contract. We're going to leave and take our jobs with us.'"

Century executives worked with West Virginia leaders last year to pass legislation intended to help the company restart its Ravenswood smelter.

However, the plan to restart that plant stalled after the West Virginia Public Service Commission rejected a Century proposal to pass off some of its power costs onto other ratepayers.

Business editor Jared Hunt contributed. 


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