After hesitating, Kansas House panel OKs bonds for national biodefense lab

Gov. Sam Brownback's administration overcame fresh resistance from the Kansas Legislature on Thursday to his proposal for an additional $202 million in bonds to help cover higher construction costs for a national biodefense lab that state officials had pursued aggressively.

The Republican-dominated House Appropriations Committee initially delayed a decision on the governor's proposal for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State University. Committee members from both parties said they wanted more information about why the cost of the lab has more than doubled to $1.15 billion since Kansas landed the project in 2009. They also wanted assurances that the state won't face even higher costs in the future.

Hours later, Landon Fulmer, the governor's chief of staff, answered questions for the committee. Members added language to the proposal to prevent the bonds from being issued without the federal government first funding the bulk of the project and approved the rewritten measure overwhelmingly.

The back-and-forth occurred only a day after the Senate Ways and Means Committee endorsed a bill authorizing the bonds, adding similar restrictions to assuage the concerns of some conservative GOP members. The House committee's additions were close to the Senate committee's wording.

Even legislators with misgivings about additional bonds have said they still strongly support the new biodefense lab. It would replace an aging facility on Plum Island, N.Y., and research dangerous animal diseases and ways of protecting the nation's food supply.

Kansas has already authorized $105 million in bonds to help finance the project. State officials expect the lab to create more than 300 new jobs averaging more than $75,000 in salary and benefits.

“Some of the people were saying, `Hey, let's just try to get it done today,' and so that's why we were trying to scramble to get some additional information,” said House committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican.

Senate leaders expect their chamber to debate its bill Tuesday, only days before lawmakers hope to finish their business for the year. House leaders want to tuck the measure into the final version of the next state budget, which is being drafted by negotiators for the two chambers.

President Barack Obama's latest proposed federal budget includes $714 million for the new lab.

But Brownback's administration has noted that Kansas committed to covering part of the costs when it was competing with Texas and several other states for the project. Amid resistance in Congress to funding the project, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security redesigned the lab to lessen chances it would release a deadly animal disease, increasing the cost of it dramatically.

Fulmer told the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday that the proposal for new bonds emerged from discussions with federal officials about how much the Department of Homeland Security would be allowed to spend under legal constraints on federal spending.

He had a separate meeting Thursday with Senate Democrats, and he told them that the latest cost estimate for the project and commitments from federal officials are “pretty solid.”

“DHS does not intend to come back and ask Kansas for further funding,” Fulmer told Democratic senators.

Both the Senate's bill and the House committee's plan would prevent the state from issuing the new bonds until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has signed its contract with the construction company that will build the lab. Also, the federal government would be on the hook for construction cost overruns.

Fulmer said federal officials wouldn't object to such language. He said DHS officials can't sign a construction contract until the federal dollars have been appropriated by Congress.

The Senate's NBAF bonding bill is SB 245. Kansas Legislature: