On his way out the door, Brownback still pursuing major projects
Topeka ? Gov. Sam Brownback is preparing to step down from office at any time, pending his confirmation to a diplomatic post in the Trump administration.
But even as he has one proverbial foot out the door, his administration has major projects in the works that could affect future administrations and future Legislatures for decades to come. And that is causing concern on both sides of the aisle.
“There certainly are very big projects with decades of impact on taxpayers that are being considered, and it doesn’t seem like they’re being considered with very much legislative input,” Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, said during an interview recently.
A Democratic lawmaker shared those concerns.
“I’ve been pretty adamant that we should not commit the next administration — that we just don’t tie their hands fiscally by contracting for a new prison, by privatizing Osawatomie and contracting out for KanCare for another five years,” Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said in a separate interview.
Among the projects in the works in the waning days of the Brownback administration are a $300 million prison construction project to replace the medium and maximum security units at the Lansing Correctional Facility; an effort to privatize the operation of Osawatomie State Hospital, the state’s largest psychiatric facility; and the launch of a new, more restrictive version of the state’s privatized Medicaid program, which the administration is calling KanCare 2.0.
Of those, Claeys said he has been most concerned about the prison project, in part because he serves on the Joint Committee on State Building Construction, which has been hearing presentations on the project.
“People elect us and send us here to make these decisions,” he said. “They didn’t vote for the secretary of corrections. So I have a real problem with someone’s administrative pen signing away $300 million in taxpayer dollars and committing those for 20 years without a vetting of that process.”
The Department of Corrections recently awarded a bid to a Nashville-based company, CoreCivic, to build a new facility at the Lansing complex on a lease-purchase contract, despite the fact that state auditors said it would be less expensive in the long run to finance it through traditional bonding.
But the project still needs to be approved by the Legislative Coordinating Council, a group made up of the top legislative leaders from both parties, in both chambers.
Kelly said she also has concerns about the prison, but as the ranking Democrat on the Public Health and Welfare Committee, she said she additionally has concerns about KanCare and privatizing Osawatomie State Hospital — all of which, she said, are interconnected.
“The construction of a new prison has been totally done within a tiny little silo, and I would suggest the privatization of Osawatomie has been the same,” she said. “These are two interconnected agencies. What corrections does has a huge impact on the mental health world, and vice-versa.”
Kelly has said in numerous committee hearings that she thinks the state should have a long-term “master plan” for addressing issues in its correctional system and its mental health network, and she is concerned that the administration is rushing ahead with a new prison and privatizing Osawatomie without such a plan.
“So we ought to be sitting down with all the stakeholders around the table and figuring out what we’ve got now and what we need to have in the future, looking 10, 20 years out, and then start piecing together a master plan to get where we need to go,” she said. “You don’t start building a house by putting a roof on.”
Brownback, however, defended those projects and said lawmakers have had plenty of opportunity to provide input.
“We’ve had hearings, proposals on all of those for some period of time,” he said during an impromptu question-and-answer session with reporters on Wednesday. “Osawatomie State Hospital has needed new buildings there for 30 years. It needs investment in that place. And I don’t know anybody that has been around that doesn’t believe it needs significant investment.”
As for the prison, he said, a portion of that complex dates back to the 1860s and the Lincoln administration, and it is sorely in need of replacement.
“It needs an overhaul,” he said. “I spent a night there. I’ve been up there often … and we haven’t done it, at Lansing, in 150 years.”
Claeys and other lawmakers, however, note that the 150-year-old portion of the prison is not what is going to be torn down. That portion, which houses the maximum security unit, will be preserved for historical purposes, and some have talked about converting it into a museum.
The portion to be torn down is the medium security unit that was built in the 1980s, barely 30 years ago.
“That also is part of the lie,” he said. “I’m more concerned that we’ve foisted this upon the taxpayers as the most urgent thing because it’s from the Lincoln administration when, in fact, the part that’s being torn down is from the Reagan administration.”
Meanwhile, some lawmakers have called on the administration to delay plans for launching KanCare 2.0, which is currently planned to go into effect in January 2019, just days before the next administration is sworn into office.
Among the changes being called for are work requirements and lifetime eligibility caps for some Medicaid recipients.
But Brownback brushed aside suggestions that the new program should be delayed.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. KanCare has been very successful,” he said. “We’ve covered more people with better results, and we’ve reduced our cost growth curve. We haven’t reduced costs, we’ve reduced that growth curve on it, and that has been critical or we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we need to be now.”
Brownback is waiting for the U.S. Senate to vote on his confirmation to be the next ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. The Senate, however, has been bogged down in weightier debates over tax reform and repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
In addition, Democrats in the Senate have objected to Brownback’s nomination, which means there may have to be floor debate and a roll call vote on his nomination. That could take several hours of floor time, which is currently in short supply as Congress prepares to adjourn for the holidays.