For months, Kansas families and their elected officials have been rightly focused on how much additional funding lawmakers should grant to our public schools. But in the next few weeks Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration may commit hundreds of millions of dollars to a project that has largely remained in the shadows and has drawn objections — not approval — from many legislators.
That project is the proposed new prison that would replace most of the current Lansing Correctional Facility. The Kansas Department of Corrections, or DOC, is pushing a lease/purchase arrangement under which private contractor CoreCivic would build the new structure and lease it to the state for 20 years. After that, ownership would revert to the state.
After limited legislative review of this scheme, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on State Building Construction refused to endorse this approach. Some members pointed out that auditors concluded the arrangement backed by the DOC would cost more than a conventional construction project. Legislators also expressed concerns that the CoreCivic contract would be a first step toward privatization of prison operations in Kansas. As State Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka pointed out, there is little interest in the Legislature in privatization.
With good reason: The wisdom of privatizing Kansas public services is coming under increasing scrutiny as we have seen dozens of children go missing in the state foster care system operated by private contractors and a lack of transparency and accountability in KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program.
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CoreCivic’s performance record has alarmed some legislators and many other observers. Management practices by the Tennessee-based private prison operator (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America) have led to disputes in at least six states involving allegations of understaffing, denial of inmate medical care, and prisoner disruptions or riots. Here in Kansas, CoreCivic was criticized for understaffing and crowding in a recent federal audit of its operation of a detention center at the Leavenworth Penitentiary.
Significantly, the DOC proposal assumes that a new facility could operate with a staff reduction of more than 40 percent, raising questions about the safety of corrections officers, inmates and the public.
A 20-year commitment involving hundreds of millions in tax dollars is a big decision. This proposal has been rushed through the internal DOC process and kept mostly under wraps. Bids and bidders were not initially revealed. Rep. J.R. Claeys of Salina said recently that something that will impact taxpayers for decades should be the subject of more legislative review and input.
Claeys has suggested corrections officials engineered the bidding process to result in a deal with CoreCivic. “I just don’t think that the way that this was set up, that it smells right,” he told the Associated Press. Last month, we learned that two former senior Brownback aides have registered to lobby for CoreCivic on this and other matters.
The DOC’s Lansing proposal is on a crowded agenda for a Dec. 20 meeting of the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee. The committee should reject it and take a strong stand in favor of meaningful legislative oversight.
But even if that happens, the DOC plan could still move forward. The committee’s actions are not binding. The governor may call a meeting of the State Finance Council any time before the Legislature convenes in January and push the lease/purchase through and have a 20-year contract signed before lawmakers return to Topeka for the 2018 session.
Kansans who believe more should be known before $300 million of their money is committed to this proposal should contact the governor, their state senators and representatives and make it clear that they want more scrutiny of this project. It is past time to bring the Lansing plan out from behind closed doors and into the Kansas sunshine, so that those who will have to pay for it can assess whether it makes sense.
Lisa Ochs is the president of American Federation of Teachers-Kansas, of which the Kansas Organization of State Employees is an affiliate.