TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas legislators have included requirements in the next state budget for multiple reviews of a plan to build a new state prison before Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration can move forward with the project.
The state Department of Corrections hopes to have a final contract this fall with a private company to build a new prison to replace the state’s oldest and largest one there. The department has proposed having the company that builds the prison lease it to Kansas for up to 40 years before the state owns it.
Lawmakers authorized both a lease-purchase agreement and up to $155 million in bonds for traditional financing of the project in the budget they approved last week for the fiscal year that begins July 1. But they also included a provision that would require the project to be reviewed by two legislative committees, legislative leaders and a state advisory panel that includes architects.
“If this process is going to go forward, we want to have a lot of checks and balances along the way,” said state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and one of the legislative negotiators who helped draft the final version of the budget.
Brownback will have about two weeks to decide whether to use his power as governor to veto individual items in budget measures. His office said Tuesday only that he will study the legislation carefully when it is formally presented to him this week.
His administration is pushing the project because parts of the Lansing prison date to the 1860s, and corrections officials and lawmakers agree that the aging facility is not as efficient — or safe — as a modern prison. The Department of Corrections has estimated that it could run a new prison with 43 percent fewer workers, generating savings to pay for the new facility over time.
The state would mothball the prison’s most historic parts and tear down the rest, built as late as the 1980s. The new facility would have more than 2,400 beds and be slightly larger.
Department spokesman Todd Fertig said the agency had always planned to seek approval for its project from the state advisory panel.
The bill also requires the department to consult with joint legislative committees that review building projects and budget issues before obtaining final approval from the State Finance Council, which includes the governor and eight top lawmakers.
Fertig said corrections officials “anticipate no change in our planned timeline for the project.”
But legislators’ concerns go beyond having a say in the new prison’s design and how it is financed.
“The other part of it is trying to keep an eye on them to ensure that we’re not trying to box ourselves into going to a private prison,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican.
The budget provision says that if the department signs a lease-purchase agreement, only the department can run the new prison. While Corrections Secretary Joseph Norwood has said that’s been the intent from the start, some legislators worry that a lease-purchase deal would be a step toward privatizing the prison system.
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