TOPEKA — Legislators remained skeptical Thursday of a plan backed by Gov. Sam Brownback to rebuild the state’s oldest, largest prison.
Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood appeared before the State Finance Council, a group of legislative leaders and Brownback, to address concerns about proposed $362 million rebuild at Lansing Correctional Facility that would house 2,400 inmates. Norwood has said the project will end up budget-neutral because a modern facility will cost less and require fewer staff to operate.
The council is expected to take a vote on the proposal next week, but legislators have continually voiced concerns over the project’s cost and CoreCivic, the private prison operator that would build it. The state would still operate the prison.
Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, has been a fierce critic of the proposal and called for a vote of the full Legislature to approve or reject the project. That authority rests with the State Finance Council, a body of legislative leaders and Brownback.
“It’s $362 million that’s going to be spent by a group of nine people led by the governor,” Claeys said. “I think that’s absolutely wrong. The Legislature is in session. Let’s go vote.”
Claeys has been critical of Brownback this week over his proposal to pump another $513 million into public schools without a tax package or budget cuts to pay for it in the coming years.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he would not be opposed to a full legislative vote on the prison, but did not plan to propose such a move to bypass the State Finance Council. He said no one had asked legislative leaders to pause the project.
“My gut feeling says that the body would be comfortable with any decision that comes out of there, but if somebody has the ability to get a bill through that quick, then I would be fine with that,” Denning said.
Denning said he had not decided how he would vote, and he raised concerns over ongoing costs to the state during Norwood’s briefing. The prison would be financed through a lease-purchase, which has set some legislators on edge. CoreCivic would build and own the prison and lease it back to the state for 20 years.
At the end of the lease, the state would again own the prison.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Republican, said he thought there was “good reason” to have the full Legislature look at the proposal.
“Typically, when we invest this kind of money, the whole Legislature does look at it,” Ward said.
Ward said he was concerned about correctional officers’ safety because the proposal claims to require 46 percent fewer staff members. The Kansas Department of Corrections did not engage the Kansas Organization of State Employees, which represents officers, on the project.
“The fact that they didn’t engage the people who represent the staff is a problem,” Ward said.