TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback and top House and Senate Republicans formed a partisan coalition sufficient Wednesday to approve a 20-year, $362 million contract for construction of a new state prison at Lansing.
The lease-to-own plan developed by the Kansas Department of Corrections and prison management company CoreCivic had been challenged for weeks by Democratic and GOP legislators. The controversy led to contract revisions to better protect the state’s financial interests and to minimize potential of privatizing operations at the new Lansing Correctional Facility.
Brownback and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said conditions at the 150-year-old Lansing prison required the state to build a new facility rather than dump millions of dollars into temporary repairs at an outmoded prison.
“The place is crumbling down,” Brownback said. “It’s a very important thing for the long-term future of this state.”
Wagle, who toured the Lansing prison, said she decided to vote for the contract because it was impossible to “erase from my mind the conditions that prisoners were living under. The conditions were deplorable. They were unsafe.”
State Finance Council members voted 6-3 for the project contract. Those in favor were Brownback, Wagle, House Speaker Ron Ryckman, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, House Majority Leader Don Hineman and House budget chairman Troy Waymaster. Voting against the deal were Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley and House Minority Leader Jim Ward, both Democrats, and Senate budget chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Republican.
“There is, in my opinion based on emails and telephone calls, a widespread perception out there in the general public that this is a step toward privatizing the Lansing facility,” Hensley said. “This vote today may not be that privatization, but ultimately that’s where we’re headed.”
The new prison complex has been designed to contain 1,900 beds for maximum- and medium-security inmates, as well as 500 beds for minimum-security prisoners. The use of advanced technology is expected to reduce staffing at Lansing from 680 corrections officers to fewer than 400 people, KDOC officials said.
Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said he objected to the state contracting with CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America.
“I don’t trust the company awarded the contract,” Ward said. “We need a new prison, and we need it in Lansing. But this is not the right way. This lack of transparency in the bid process is an irresponsible way to conduct the state’s business and not how we should handle a project of this magnitude.”
The new prison won’t meet “revenue neutral” financial targets set by the state agency and additional appropriations will be required in the future, said Denning, an Overland Park Republican.
Denning was influential in adding language to the contract to discourage privatization and promised a bill would be introduced in the 2018 Legislature to prohibit privatization of operations at any state prison in Kansas.
“In my opinion, it’s not going to be budget neutral,” he said. “I’ve never been in favor of privatization of jails, and certainly not prisons.”
Immediately before the State Finance Council vote on the prison contract, Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer withdrew their formal proposal to reform KanCare, the privatized Medicaid program serving 400,000 Kansans. In early January, four Senate Republicans — including Wagle and Denning — called on the Brownback administration to abandon the KanCare 2.0 proposal. It appeared the governor’s office swapped KanCare 2.0 for the prison contract.
“That took a lot of courage and leadership by the governor and the lieutenant governor,” Denning said. “It was a major decision point for me.”