TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback pulled the plug on a meeting of top legislative leaders Thursday that was scheduled to decide whether to authorize construction of a $360 million replacement for Lansing Correctional Facility.
The decision to postpone indefinitely the State Finance Council meeting reflected persistent concern among Republican and Democratic legislators about the state’s financial commitment to the 2,400-bed project as well as questions about integrity of the proposed private contractor and a sense the issue should be put to a vote of the full 2018 Legislature.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, the Sedgwick Republican who chairs the Senate’s budget committee, said she would have been among members of the nine-person finance council that would have voted against the prison package. She was concerned the Brownback administration, or Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer if Brownback were to resign, would make certain the state’s interests were protected as the deal unfolded.
“I wasn’t going to vote for it,” said McGinn, who is a member of the finance council. “We’re getting into a big project. We don’t even know who is going to be in the administration.”
Brownback, a Republican who supports the 20-year lease-to-buy proposal, said the Lansing prison was outdated and inefficient to operate. He hosted an event Tuesday at the prison to lobby for approval of a contract with CoreCivic, which would build and maintain the facility. The new prison complex would be managed by the Kansas Department of Corrections, but would require far fewer corrections officers.
“There’s some questions that still need to be answered,” said Kendall Marr, a spokesman for Brownback. “It’s not dead.”
The governor’s office statement didn’t indicate when the finance council would be called together on the prison project.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and member of the finance council, said the vote was delayed for two weeks at the request of Republicans uneasy with an early draft of the contract with CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America. The governor initially opposed that postponement, but eventually voted with others on the council to allow more time to gather information about the plan.
“At some point, you’re going to have to have a meeting,” Hensley said. “You can’t continue to change the rules in the middle of the game because you don’t have the votes.”
Wichita Rep. Jim Ward, who leads House Democrats and serves on the finance council, said the decision should be put to a vote of the 2018 Legislature. He questioned the administration’s assertions that millions of dollars in operational costs would be saved by replacing dozens of corrections officers with security systems and building redesign.
“This isn’t an argument about whether we need a new prison at Lansing. We do. The argument is about the best way for Kansas taxpayers to invest in this,” he said.