Topeka Gov. Sam Brownback and Kansas legislative leaders are regrouping after the proposed 2013 federal budget failed to include construction dollars for a new biosecurity lab, raising questions about the project’s future.
President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget proposal put no new money in for building the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan near Kansas State University. In fact, the budget recommendation requires the Department of Homeland Security to reassess the project, its scope and alternatives.
The news was a setback for Kansas leaders who see the new $650 million research lab as the crown jewel of the state’s efforts to be a world leader in animal health research and related industries. The project would replace an aging facility at Plum Island, N.Y. Suggestions are circulating in the Statehouse that Topeka may have to step up to fund the lab if Washington is unable in the coming years.
“It’s going to be a fight. That’s the nature of what it’s going to be,” Brownback said. “I think we’re going to get this done. It’s going to be difficult as we work through the process. This is going to be an ongoing discussion, the top of everybody’s list for the state of Kansas.”
Brownback was on the phone with DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to win assurances that the administration was still intent on building the NBAF and that the reassessment had nothing to do with building the lab in Kansas and everything to do with money.
Kansas has already transferred land to DHS for the project, which has been cleared, and authorized $105 million in bonds to pay for construction of a central utility plant.
Senate President Steve Morris, one of the biggest supporters of the project in the Legislature, said he had discussions with Brownback last week about what Kansas might do to keep the NBAF on track. Morris declined to give details about those talks, but isn’t ready to rule out any funding sources.
Morris, a Hugoton Republican, said he doesn’t “have a problem doing what we need to do, if it’s increasing our debt level modestly.”
“NBAF is so important that we need to consider every viable alternative to make sure it goes forward,” he said.
There’s no additional money that the state could spend in this year’s budget, but House Speaker Mike O’Neal said bonding could be part of the solution. No one is willing to say how much of the $650 million price tag the state would be willing to pick up.
“I’m all for looking at other alternatives in light of the fact that the feds aren’t being very kind right now,” said O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican. “I’m with the governor. I think the thing gets built (as planned) or built with a different financing scheme.”
Much at stake
The lab is expected to be the western anchor of the so-called Animal Health Corridor stretching from Kansas State to the University of Missouri in Columbia. The corridor consists of hundreds of animal health companies researching and developing the latest and best advancements in livestock production.
Kansas has banked on the NBAF serving as a global magnet for increased bioscience activity along the corridor for the next 25 years or more.
Kansas overcame several challenges to win the NBAF project. It was competing with other states with much more political clout, including Texas, where President George W. Bush had been governor and many felt the lab would be awarded.
But Kansas was chosen because of its proximity to cattle, a research institution and the growing animal health and bioscience industry. State officials contend they didn’t offer more to DHS for the project monetarily, but they had the intangibles that made it more attractive.
Critics haven’t relented since 2010 and they continue to pick flaws with the Kansas selection in risk assessments presented by the National Academy of Sciences. A second report is under review and expected to be released this spring or summer.
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, whose name is on the building housing Kansas State’s Biosecurity Research Institute, said this past week in Washington during a Senate Agriculture Committee meeting that he was confident that any concerns about the NBAF’s safety would be addressed during the design process. He also said Kansas would look at alternatives for funding.
State Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said it was ironic that the Kansas congressional delegation — all Republicans — were upset with Obama’s budget when they have been “beating the drum” for him to cut federal spending since he took office.
“I don’t think it should come as any surprise that the president’s going to try to balance the budget and there are certain things that he’s going to do,” said Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. “Certainly, the decision that the administration made is one at some point that we hope will be reversed, but they have their own budget problems.”
Hensley said Kansas has been a partner with the federal government in past projects and he would support doing that again with the NBAF should it come to that.
“We certainly want to be a partner in this. It would just depend on how much and what the proposal would be,” Hensley said.
Morris said the Obama administration is being “short-sighted” in delaying funding and construction of the NBAF, adding that the need for a research facility of this magnitude is important for the nation’s food safety and to protect public health.
“Cost and scope is all relative. Can you put a cost on people’s health?” Morris said.