A rare sense of urgency coursed through state government Wednesday, with bipartisan calls by Kansas politicians and officials to remove bureaucratic hurdles in rebuilding the fire-damaged Tyson Food plant in Finney County and mitigate broader economic fallout from halting production at one of the nation's key cattle packing facilities.
At this juncture, officials were poised to act pending Tyson's evaluation of complex operational questions following a blaze that started Friday and indefinitely idled the Holcomb plant. The sprawling facility has a payroll of 3,800, but the beefpacker's tentacles could link to as many as 10,000 jobs in the region. The plant's shutdown rattled the live cattle futures market and pushed up wholesale beef prices.
"It was a huge economic hit. We stand ready to help in any way feasible and possible," said Mike Beam, secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture in the administration of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
"We need to do everything we can to welcome their reinvestment in Kansas jobs," said House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican. "That means listening and learning from Tyson as they determine their rebuilding steps. By sharing and being responsive to their needs, we can structure a plan that provides the resources they need to get back up and running as quickly as possible."
The state's interest in preservation of the Tyson facility was driven by potential loss of all the direct jobs at the plant, as well as residual jobs held by ranchers, truckers, feedlot operators and dozens of other businesses — from paper box suppliers to refrigeration companies — necessary for functioning of a plant processing 6 percent of cattle slaughtered in the United States.
Rep. Russ Jennings, a Republican who lives about 20 miles west of the wounded plant, said the state's first obligation was to prepare the government bureaucracy to do what it sometimes cannot, which would be to remain flexible and to timely respond to requests for assistance. The recovery will require cooperation at local, state and federal levels, he said.
"The first thing the governor needs to do is instruct every agency of state government to prioritize any application Tyson or any of their vendors submits," Jennings said.
He said it could be a Kansas Department of Health and Environment application for disposal of debris in a temporary landfill, perhaps modeling options that helped Greensburg, which was flattened by a tornado, dig out. Maybe the federal government could work on short-term extension of the limit to driving hours for truckers required to haul cattle up to three hours away from Garden City to Tyson plants in Lexington, Neb., or Amarillo, Texas.
Tyson is paying full-time employees as if they're working 40 hours a week, but other businesses reliant on Tyson's presence may not be able to carry their workforce during a shutdown that could last months. That raises potential of involvement by the Kansas Department of Labor.
The Kansas Department of Commerce, which has jurisdiction over economic development programs, could step in with incentives for Tyson to make use of the tragedy to modernize or expand operations at the Holcomb plant in ways meriting tax breaks for job retention and creation.
"I definitely think that is possible," said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita. "The goal is to make sure they expand there."
Immediately after the fire, the governor sent Beam, the state agriculture secretary, and David Toland, who is secretary of the commerce department, to Finney County to deliver a message the state would provide aid in wake of the fire.
Ryckman, the House speaker raised in western Kansas, said the 2020 Legislature would have opportunities to support Tyson. He suggested the governor view with a different lens her decision during the 2019 legislative session to veto a bill exempting companies with overseas income from the state income tax when repatriating revenue to Kansas.
"I hope she will reconsider that veto in the wake of the plant closure. Now is not the time to hit companies like Tyson and working families with another tax hike," Ryckman said.
Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, said he wasn't convinced the state could do much quickly to speed the bottom-line goal of restarting the Holcomb plant.
"I'm really not sure there's anything the government can do. If they reach out and have a particular issue we can help with, yes, but I don't know. For Tyson, they just want to get it back and going, and the quicker the better," Billinger said.
Rep. Troy Waymaster, who is from Bunker Hill and serves as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that two weeks ago he visited Tyson's corporate headquarters in Arkansas. He said Tyson officials expressed interest at that time for adding production capacity in Kansas. In 2018, Tyson's plan to build a chicken processing plant near Tonganoxie in eastern Kansas was withdrawn.
"It's going to be problematic not only for Tyson itself, the community of Holcomb, but also for the beef producers in the state of Kansas," Waymaster said. "As far as recovering any cattle prices or transportation needs for those producers, there's nothing that we have set in place now to cover that."
He said he was uncertain the state had pockets of contingency funding that could be reallocated to assist a private business. In the past, Kansas lawmakers approved sales tax exemptions for ranchers and farmers who had fences and other facilities destroyed by wildfires.
"We could have a discussion next year for setting up a contingency fund in case something like this happens, but then you run into what is deemed an emergency, which could be somewhat problematic. But that's definitely something we could look at," Waymaster said.