By John Celock
Legislation aimed at defeating one of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s pet projects has been given preliminary approval by Kansas lawmakers.
The state House of Representatives voted 77-37 Thursday to advance a bill that would prohibit local and county governments from requiring restaurants and other food vendors to post nutrition information without permission from the state government. The bill comes as local governments around the country have sought to institute the requirement, a move made popular by Bloomberg.
“What we are looking for is consistency and uniformity,” Rep. Gene Suellentrop (R-Wichita) said during the debate.
Under the bill, county and local governments would not be able to require the nutrition requirements or ban certain foods and beverages without permission from state legislators. The state Department of Health and Environment would also have to seek legislative approval to institute the requirements.
The bill has been pushed by business groups and backed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, following a move by several local governments to institute the moves, including calorie counts. The most famous of the moves came from Bloomberg, who instituted measures in New York to require the posting of nutrition information and the banning of trans-fats. Bloomberg’s move to ban large sugary drinks was defeated by the New York State Court of Appeals.
Suellentrop briefly referenced Bloomberg, who left City Hall in 2013 after 12 years, at the beginning of the debate.
House Democratic Policy Chairman John Wilson (D-Lawrence), who has worked on childhood obesity issues for a decade, tried unsuccessfully to send the bill to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee for further study. Wilson said that one way to end childhood obesity is to expose children to a healthier eating environment. He cited the Legislature as an example, saying that his own eating habits change in Topeka, where he is regularly exposed to donuts, cookies and cakes during meetings around the Capitol.
Wilson said that allowing local governments to have their own nutrition policies will allow more local control of the subject. He noted that in Lawrence, community gardens, farmers markets and urban agriculture programs have thrived. He also said that healthier nutrition policy for sporting events have proven popular in the community.
“The underlying bill is a solution looking for a problem,” Wilson said.
Wilson said the Agriculture Committee was the more appropriate place for the bill to be studied; saying that the committee could look at the impact the policies would have on the agricultural industry and farmer’s markets. He also said he could see a spot for the bill to be heard in the Health and Human Services Committee. The bill was heard by the Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee. Wilson serves on both the agriculture and health panels, but does not serve on the commerce panel.
House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Sharon Schwartz (R-Washington) argued that Wilson’s motion was tantamount to killing the bill, noting that the committee only has one more scheduled meeting this session and limited time remaining overall. Lawmakers defeated Wilson’s motion 38-74.
Lawmakers did adopt two amendments to the bill, including one from Rep. Erin Davis (R-Olathe) that would allow for school districts and local governments to continue teaching healthy eating programs and for more of those to be implemented. In addition, lawmakers adopted an amendment from Rep. Kristey Williams (R-Augusta) to protect local zoning laws that she said could have been impacted based on the original wording of the legislation.
Williams said that she supported the entire bill, noting that she felt it could provide statewide uniformity on the issue.
“This is commonsense protection of free market principles,” she said.