TOPEKA — Republican and Democratic legislative leaders agreed Thursday to delay for at least two weeks the vote on a 20-year, $362 million contract with a private company to finance, design, construct and maintain a new state prison in Lansing.
Gov. Sam Brownback unsuccessfully pressed legislators on the State Finance Council to approve the deal negotiated by the Kansas Department of Corrections with CoreCivic, a firm previously known as Corrections Corporation of America.
The governor and members of the House and Senate plan to reconvene Jan. 18 once final language of the lease, buy-back contract has been fixed by attorneys. Late insertions into the contract includes a ban on the state working with CoreCivic to privatize management of the new prison, which under the plan would be staffed and supervised by the state of Kansas.
Senate President Susan Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, both Republicans, said they had no interest in proceeding with State Finance Council action without analyzing a final version of the contract. They sponsored a motion to table the vote — a measure unanimously endorsed by Brownback, the six Republicans and two Democrats on the council.
“In recent years we’ve really had some issues come up and we need to flyspeck contracts,” Wagle said. “I think it’s fair we not only look at the bills but we look at the impact on the taxpayers.”
Denning said he wanted to avoid a situation in which the Legislature had to again correct decisions made by the Brownback administration on large investments in public projects.
“I don’t want to ask for forgiveness on this,” he said. “If I make a bad decision, then I want to own it. We owe it to taxpayers that we don’t act on this today until we see the final document.”
Brownback, who opened the council meeting by enthusiastically endorsing the CoreCivic plan to replace Lansing Correctional Facility, initially objected to formal tabling of the contract vote. He said a brief, informal delay could be justified given complexity and financial implications of the contract. After discussion of the KDOC proposal, the Republican governor chose to make the vote unanimous on a temporary delay on the prison contract.
Council approval is required for CoreCivic and KDOC to move ahead with a plan to build the new facility in two years.
Damon Hininger, president and chief executive officer of the Nashville-based CoreCivic, said concerns about the company fulfilling its obligations to Kansas were misplaced.
“We hold ourselves to a very high standard,” said Hininger, who indicated a two-week delay wouldn’t be disruptive to a financing scheme never previously tried by the state government. “We know this is a big, big deal.”
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat on the state council, expressed concern a U.S. Department of Justice report showed the company working with KDOC endangered prisoners through inadequate staffing. In addition, Ward said, lawsuits allege the company engaged in “false and misleading statements” about its operations.
“This is going to be a state-operated facility. This is not going to be a CoreCivic facility,” said Joe Norwood, secretary of the Department of Corrections.
“It doesn’t concern you that your partner in building this has a lawsuit saying they don’t tell the truth?” Ward said. “I’m 100 percent behind getting a new prison. I don’t trust your partners.”
In July 2017, a legislative audit concluded the corrections department incorrectly projected savings of a lease-purchase agreement in a preliminary analysis. The auditors suggested the state explore a more traditional approach of issuing construction bonds for the project.
The Legislature’s joint building committee declined to recommend approval of a prison contract with CoreCivic. The House-Senate panel did urge KDOC reopen the bidding process to consider the bonding approach to financing a prison.
The KDOC secretary said the agency didn’t make an effort to conform to those suggestions.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the executive branch’s decision to ignore the Legislature’s building oversight committee “gives me great pause.”
The state’s prison system has been roiled in the past year by violence and unrest among inmates and an ongoing shortage of corrections officers.
Under the plan developed by KDOC and CoreCivic, the new facility would have 1,920 maximum and minimum security beds and 512 medium security beds. Technology and design upgrades would allow the KDOC to reduce staffing from the current 682 to around 371.
The first year payment by the state would be $14.9 million and would rise 1.9 percent annually during the 20-year life of the contract. The corrections department estimated the dramatic reduction in staffing requirements in the new facility would keep the project revenue neutral.