Top Kansas officials have tapped the brakes on the attempt by Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration to hire one of the nation’s largest private prison operators build a new Lansing prison.
The State Finance Council, which includes Brownback as well as Republican and Democratic leaders from the House and Senate, agreed Thursday to delay consideration of a proposed lease-to-own arrangement for a new Lansing prison until another meeting on Jan. 18.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, made the motion to table the project.
“I don’t want to ask for forgiveness on this,” Denning said. “If I make a bad decision, then I want to own it. But I don’t want to make a decision today until both sides have agreed to the lease-buyback agreement and I’ve had a chance to look at it.”
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Brownback then asked for another finance council meeting in two weeks in hopes that questions would be answered.
“It desperately needs help,” Brownback said about the Lansing prison earlier in the meeting. “Smells. It needs a lot of work.”
A spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections said earlier this week that a favorable vote for the prison on Thursday would have been the last major hurdle to clear before the project could start.
Prison officials had said that CoreCivic Inc., formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, would design, build, finance and maintain the new prison but that the state would staff and operate it.
But critics have said the process has been rushed and the financing method is questionable for replacing the state’s largest prison. They’ve called for more review and questioned the cost to taxpayers.
The proposal, which would cost Kansas roughly $362 million over 20 years, calls for a 1,920-bed maximum- and medium-security unit and a 512-bed minimum-security unit that would be built over two years.
The current Lansing prison had an inmate population of more than 2,100 as of Wednesday.
The new prison would be more efficient, the corrections department has said, with a staff of 371, down from 682 positions needed in the current prison.
Scrutiny over the project continued to build after The Star revealed late last year that Brownback’s former chief of staff, David Kensinger, and another former Brownback staffer were registered as lobbying on behalf of CoreCivic. Brownback’s office said in late November that it was not involved in the selection of CoreCivic.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat running for governor, on Thursday questioned Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood about CoreCivic’s reputation.
“I don’t trust your partners,” Ward said to Norwood during the meeting. “They have a history of not telling the truth.”
After the meeting, CoreCivic President and CEO Damon Hininger defended the company and said it was fine with the two-week delay.
But, he said, “getting much further than that, then obviously there’s going to be some challenges.”