Kansas needs to rebuild its largest and oldest prison, a facility in Lansing dating to the Civil War. There’s no doubt about that.
But the way officials are proceeding demands closer scrutiny. Corrections officials appear to be in too big a rush to award the contract to a politically connected firm proposing a more costly construction option. Also, those officials aren’t considering whether the facility would meet the state’s long-term needs.
The latest sign of this rush-rush-rush mentality came last week when the Legislature’s bipartisan Joint Committee on State Building Construction declined to endorse the project.
That doesn’t necessarily kill it — a fact not lost on Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood, who is moving ahead. He’s announced that his department has selected CoreCivic to rebuild the Lansing prison, which houses 2,400 inmates and has seen its share of unrest in recent months. CoreCivic of Nashville, Tennessee, is one of the nation’s largest private-prison operators. It beat out a second firm, the Florida-based GEO Group.
But committee members raised several questions about CoreCivic’s proposal. One key concern: CoreCivic is proposing a lease arrangement that calls for the firm to design, build and maintain the new facility. But the respected Legislative Post Audit Committee determined that that’s the more expensive way to go.
A cheaper way — by some $13 million — calls for the state to issue bonds for construction.
But the state didn’t receive any offers for the bond option. Committee members recommended that corrections officials go for a second round of bids.
One committee member, Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, said the bonding option was superior. “And here we are with zero bids going in that direction,” he said.
Claeys charged that the state requested bids that were geared toward the more expensive leasing option.
“This looks like it’s just been set up from the beginning to have a certain outcome, and I don’t like the way this looks,” he said, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. “There’s $300 million in taxpayer dollars at stake here over the course of 20 years.”
Lo and behold, it turns out that CoreCivic has employed two of Gov. Sam Brownback’s former aides as lobbyists. David Kensinger is a former Brownback campaign manager. George Stafford is a long-time fundraiser. The governor’s office has denied any involvement in the process.
Also troubling, committee members said, was the department’s failure to engage other stakeholders in this important decision. The state Sentencing Commission should be involved. So should officials from the state’s mental health universe. Otherwise, legislators said, the new facility could be obsolete within a few years of its opening.
The project still faces scrutiny from the State Finance Council. Let’s hope that group has the sense to slow down this questionable process.