Topeka Even as Kansas corrections officials move ahead with plans to build a new prison to replace the state's oldest and largest lockup, their project faces bipartisan skepticism from legislators worried that their oversight is being skirted.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's administration expects by the end of the week to have a list of qualified companies interested in building the new prison in Lansing. The project would cost up to $155 million; the cash-strapped state could finance it with bonds or lease the new prison from its builder for up to 40 years before buying it.
The Department of Corrections hopes to have a final contract by October. Ahead of the project, it is moving a work program for inmates from the existing prison in Lansing to a newer prison outside El Dorado, transferring several dozen inmates.
Legislators must approve demolition of existing buildings and authorize any bonds. Brownback's administration can sign a lease-purchase agreement with a private company on its own, but lawmakers have considered requiring additional review of the project by legislative leaders.
"They may be moving forward, but we can certainly put on the brakes," said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican. "We just want to be part of the process and make sure we're all heading in the right direction."
Parts of the Lansing prison date to the 1860s, and legislators agree that the aging facility is not as efficient — or safe — as a modern prison. The Corrections Department estimates it could run a new prison with 43 percent fewer workers, generating savings to pay for the new facility over time.
The state would mothball the prison's most historic parts and tear down the rest. The new facility would have more than 2,400 beds and be slightly larger.
Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood said this past week that 20 firms initially expressed an interest, though the department is limiting bidding to firms that previously built at least three prisons. Brownback said his administration will provide whatever briefings lawmakers need to feel comfortable.
"I think they have oversight, and I think this is an excellent project," he said.
The governor said Norwood suggested replacing the Lansing prison, and Brownback told him, "It can't cost us any more money.'
"But he's come up with a way to do it," Brownback said.
Some Democrats worry that a lease-purchase deal would be a step toward privatizing the prison system — an idea the department rejects. Other lawmakers believe Brownback's administration is rushing the project and not considering all potential alternatives.
"We have a commitment from the secretary of corrections that he will work with the Legislature," said Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican and the chairman of a House subcommittee on public safety spending. "I'm concerned that, that was lip service."
Norwood told legislators last week that the project remains in its initial stages and that the department wants to compare a lease-purchases deal with more-traditional bond financing.
Meanwhile, the department has decreased Lansing's population so that it now holds about 100 fewer inmates than it did at the beginning of March. Most of the decline came this month, and Norwood said the prison work program's move was the reason.
Rep. Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat, said fellow lawmakers understand that they "need to do something" to have a safer lockup with less staff turnover.
"I'm interested in having a new prison as soon as possible," he said.