Kansas’ prisons, hospitals and other state facilities are in disrepair after years of underfunding, according to the man who has spent the last seven years as the state’s governor.
Gov. Sam Brownback, who will officially step down as governor Wednesday, sounded off about the condition of state buildings last week after the State Finance Council approved a 20-year, $360 million building project at Lansing Correctional Facility.
“Getting this new prison built is a big deal,” Brownback told reporters. “We’ve got a series of state assets that have been underfunded for years. I’ve been asking some of you guys to go around and look at some of them whether it’s Lansing (or) Osawatomie State Hospital.”
The state’s psychiatric facility in Osawatomie just regained its federal Medicare certification last month after a nearly two-year process that required the state to make a slew of updates.
“It’s a pit, isn’t it?” Brownback said of the hospital. “Parsons (State Hospital) is worse than Osawatomie. And so you’ve got these state assets that we haven’t put any money into for years.”
Brownback’s candor about the poor condition of state facilities and their underfunding came minutes after the first of two votes by the U.S. Senate to approve his nomination for ambassador at-large for international religious freedom.
Basking in the dual triumphs of the prison project’s approval and his impending ambassadorship, Brownback pushed back on the suggestion that as the state’s governor since 2011 he had responsibility for the underfunding of state hospitals and prisons.
“For 155 years? No,” Brownback said.
Pressed again on the fact that he had been governor for seven years, Brownback replied, “And we got a new prison, didn’t we?”
Lawmakers and state workers were mystified by Brownback’s suggestion that he was not responsible for the condition of state buildings after nearly two full terms as governor.
“Every leader says the buck stops with them. So he’s obviously responsible for it because he’s been governor for the last seven years … and he obviously let those facilities deteriorate,” said Robert Choromanski, the executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, the union that represents state workers.
“I think it’s sad that he has let those facilities crumble to such a state of disrepair. He is the leader of the state of Kansas until the 31st, so he should take responsibility for it.”
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who takes the oath of office Wednesday afternoon, issued a statement through his spokesman that he “believes that it is time to make smart investments in our infrastructure.”
“But, like most things, it matters more how you spend the money than the total dollars spent,” said Kendall Marr, a spokesman for Colyer.
State Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat running for governor, called Brownback’s comments “insulting to our staff who work in those facilities … under some dire conditions.”
Choromanski said the poor conditions have hurt recruitment efforts at state hospitals and other institutions, contributing to understaffing.
“No one wants to work at a decrepit facility,” he said.
One employee at Osawatomie, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recalled discovering that an animal was living in the same building as patients three years ago. “Judging by the droppings it was larger than a raccoon,” the worker said.
The worker, who has been at the facility for most of Brownback’s tenure as governor, blamed the governor for the conditions.
“It’s his fault. We’d ask for things to be fixed like the roof leaking and we’d be told there’s no point. It’s just going to leak somewhere else,” the worker said. “… I know a lot of people are concerned for their safety just off of the disrepair.”
Kelly and others repeatedly pointed to Brownback’s tax cuts, which the Legislature rescinded last year in the face of a budget hole, as the reason the state could not keep up facilities.
State Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who chairs the Senate budget committee, noted that Brownback’s budget recommendations for the state hospitals for both the current and previous budget years was tens of millions of dollars less than the hospitals had requested.
“We need to look at repairing what will last for the next 50 years, tear down what won’t and invest in new facilities if needed,” McGinn said in an email.
Osawatomie’s campus includes multiple dilapidated buildings, some of which have been empty since the 1990s, that have been left in disrepair because razing them would be too expensive and rehabilitating them would cost even more.
Some of the state’s white-collar workers are also operating out of facilities that need improvements. A June review of state office buildings in Topeka rated as deficient the buildings that house the Kansas Department of Education, the Kansas Supreme Court and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Candidates for governor from both parties said the next administration needs to take the management of state facilities more seriously.
“We don’t have the money to take care of the assets that people of Kansas have entrusted us with, and that’s sad,” said former state Rep. Mark Hutton, a Wichita Republican who is running for governor.
Hutton, who made his personal fortune in the construction business, said that investing more money in preventive maintenance will save the state money in the long term.
“You either take care of your car today or you’re walking tomorrow,” he said.
Hutton said that when the state approves a new building project, it needs to also set aside money to perform maintenance in future years, something that is increasingly done by universities when funding expansion projects but is still rare for most state projects.
Hutton said that it’s not politically popular to spend money on prisons and psychiatric hospital, which leads to their needs being overlooked. He called their decline a public safety issue.
“If these people could vote, I wonder if they’d get more attention,” Hutton said.
The Lansing project had generated controversy both because it’ll be constructed through a lease-purchase agreement instead of a bond offering, a move that some state workers fear is a step toward privatization, and because of the ties that lobbyists for the project had to Brownback.
But even many of the project’s critics acknowledge the need for improvements at the prison.
Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood led lawmakers on a tour of Lansing last spring, showcasing the rust and increasingly dangerous deterioration of the 75-year-old building that houses the cafeteria.
“If we can’t feed them, we can’t house them,” Mike Gaito, director of capital of improvements for the Department of Corrections, told lawmakers at the time.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat running for governor, said there’s almost a “universal consensus” that Lansing needs improvements.
Ward said that he voted against the project last week because it should have been brought before the full Legislature for more thorough vetting rather than the State Finance Council, a panel that includes the governor and legislative leaders.
He said that the state hospital in Osawatomie needed improvements before Brownback took office.
“What he did is accelerate the deterioration,” Ward said, contending that Brownback’s tax cuts made it impossible to address the facility’s needs.
“I totally reject his arguments that’s he’s not responsible for his seven years,” said Ward, who promised to create a 10-year facilities plan as governor.
The same week that Brownback called Osawatomie a pit, Colyer celebrated on Twitter that the state’s psychiatric facility in Larned would not lose its federal certification despite federal investigators finding deficiencies during an inspection last year.
“If you’re in the Colyer/Brownback administration, that’s as high as the bar gets,” Ward said.
Choromanski said that at some point a governor will have to grapple with the declining conditions at state facilities.
“I think it’s going to have to finally stop because it’s at the breaking point,” he said.