Topeka — Some state legislators said Tuesday they were surprised by remarks from Gov. Sam Brownback that Kansas and its congressional delegation face “a continuous fight” to obtain federal funding for a new lab that would research plant and animal pathogens.
Brownback told two-dozen lawmakers during a Monday evening meeting at his official residence that he expects the legislative battle over the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility to last another five years. A site in Manhattan, near the Kansas State University campus, has been cleared for construction of the $650 million biosecurity lab.
“It’s troubling to learn that, hey, maybe it’s not as solid a deal as we thought,” state Rep. Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican who attended the meeting, said Tuesday.
The state authorized $45 million in bonds in December to help finance construction of a new central utilities building for the lab and clear away an old grain mill. The state is waiting for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to release $40 million in funds for the utilities building, which depends upon the completion of an assessment of the lab’s risk.
The new lab, which could start operations by 2018, would replace an aging facility on Plum Island, N.Y. But U.S. Rep. Timothy Bishop, a Democrat who represents the Plum Island site and Long Island, has asked the federal Office of Management and Budget not to recommend funding for NBAF.
Members of Kansas’ all-GOP delegation and Brownback, also a Republican, have expressed confidence that the project will be fully funded, despite opposition from some concerned about the lab’s safety, including Bishop and other members of Congress. Brownback said funding for NBAF is the Kansas delegation’s top priority.
“This is going to be a continuous fight for a while,” Brownback told the bi-partisan group of state lawmakers. “We’re going to be fighting for another five years on this thing.”
The state’s congressional delegation has been vocal in its support for the project. U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who represents the 1st Congressional District of western and central Kansas, announced plans to tour the NBAF site in the neighboring 2nd District of eastern Kansas next week.
“We’ll have to go through the debate of, do we continue to build the project?” Huelskamp said, adding that opposition will decrease as construction work gets closer to being finished.
State officials actively promoted northeast Kansas as a potential site for the lab, seeing it as crucial to efforts to create a strong biosciences industry and create more than 300 jobs that would pay an average of more than $75,000 a year in salary and benefits. The state is committed to issuing up to $105 million in bonds to help with the project.
“We just really need to stay on top of it,” state Rep. James Fawcett, a Junction City Republican, said after the meeting.
State Rep. Jan Pauls, a Hutchison Democrat who also attended the meeting with Brownback, said she was surprised by the tone of Brownback’s comments and said, “There must be a little more information out there that it’s at risk.”
During a hearing last month, some Manhattan-area residents and Kansas State University faculty expressed concerns about the possibility that deadly pathogens, such as foot-and-mouth disease, could be released accidentally from the lab and damage agriculture. Bishop and other congressional critics have raised the same concerns.
Backers of the project insist the new lab will be safe. Brownback told state legislators it would meet safety standards set not only by Homeland Security but the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Although Huelskamp is a conservative who regularly argues that federal spending is excessive, he sees a new lab as vital to protecting the nation’s food supply.
“Budgeting is about setting priorities, and it’s a matter of national defense,” he said.
Brownback acknowledged that with the federal government’s ongoing problems, the Office of Management and Budget officials are “looking to cut anything and everything they can.”
“We’re going to fight,” he said. “We’re going to get it, and it’s going to get done.”
State Sen. Chris Steineger, a Kansas City Republican, said a big project like NBAF is naturally a target when the federal government looks to cut spending.
“NBAF is an overhyped, over-promised federal project,” he said, offering a rare skeptical view among legislators. “I don’t think it will have as much economic impact as the hypsters hype.”