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Lansing prison project going forward, for now
The House Appropriations Committee on Monday gave tentative approval — very tentative — to a request by the Brownback administration for permission to replace the original 1860s-era housing unit at the Lansing Correctional Facility and sign a lease-purchase contract for the construction of a new one. There is almost universal agreement among lawmakers and, well, almost everyone that the old housing unit, which literally dates back to the Lincoln administration and has no air conditioning, is obsolete and in dire need of replacement, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s expensive to operate and requires more staff to manage than a modern prison. The plan, according to Department of Corrections officials, is to close that part of the prison, which currently houses both maximum and medium security inmates, and to demolish a separate medium security building on the Lansing complex. Then the state would contract with a firm to build a new unit on that site that would replace the other two. Corrections officials say they think they can save enough just through improved efficiency to pay for the project, with maybe a little left over to give pay raises to correctional workers. But the idea of embarking on a major construction project that could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars is unsettling to many, given the state’s precarious financial condition and the fact that the committee still hasn’t had a full presentation on the idea. Plus, ever since the debacle last year over the Docking State Office Building, there isn’t a whole lot of good will between the Legislature and the governor’s office when it comes to lease-purchase contracts. Strictly speaking, the governor doesn’t need legislative approval to sign a lease-purchase contract, an agreement by which the administration hires a private company to construct a building, then leases it back from that company until it’s paid off. But as the Legislature showed last year in the Docking building controversy, there are lots of things it can do to block a project, such as denying authority to make the lease payments or to tear down an existing building. What the committee did Monday was merely to accept a subcommittee report that makes a recommendation for the Department of Corrections’ budget for the next two fiscal years. That report includes language allowing the lease-purchase agreement for the Lansing prison. There were some on the committee, including Democratic Reps. Barbara Ballard of Lawrence and Sidney Carlin of Manhattan, who were reluctant to go along with the recommendation, and they initially moved to remove that language from the report, at least until the committee has a full hearing, with public input, on the proposal. “I just feel very uncomfortable approving it the way it is when we haven’t had the hearing on it,” Ballard said. The committee actually did hear an informal presentation on the idea in early February when the Department of Corrections asked that it be included in the “rescission” bill aimed at balancing the current fiscal year’s budget. But the committee balked at that time, saying it still needed to gather more information. Committee Chairman Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, however, said there would be a full hearing later and that simply accepting the subcommittee report does not lock the full committee into anything. The subcommittee report simply becomes part of the full “mega” budget bill that will be debated and amended later before it goes to the full House. He assured the committee that there would be full hearings on the project, with public comment, later this month. And Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, who chairs the Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Safety, suggested that if the Legislature doesn’t go along with the plan, the administration has other options, including signing a lease-purchase agreement to build a new facility on open ground somewhere else, possibly Abilene, which he said has been offered as a potentially better site than Lansing. Mike Gaito, director of capital improvements for the Department of Corrections, said afterward that he had not heard any discussion of building a new prison in Abilene. He also said the department wants to work with the Legislature, even though it does have independent authority to sign a lease-purchase agreement on its own. “We want to see what the legislators’ point of views are anyway,” he said. During a separate presentation to the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee Monday afternoon, Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood tried to put to rest concerns that the project was an attempt to privatize the Lansing prison. “This will be a state-operated facility with state employees,” Norwood said.