TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas' plan to have the nation's largest private-prison operator build a new state prison is in limbo after several top Republican lawmakers backed away from supporting the project.
GOP Gov. Sam Brownback cancelled a Thursday morning meeting on the project with the Legislature's top eight leaders just before it was set to begin. He had scheduled it to get their final approval, something required by a state law enacted last year.
The Department of Corrections wants Tennessee-based CoreCivic Inc. to build the new, 2,432-bed prison to replace the state's oldest and largest prison in Lansing, near Kansas City. The state would purchase the prison through a 20-year lease, paying $362 million. The company would handle upkeep while the state oversaw day-to-day operations.
The department projects that a new, modern prison can operate with 46 percent fewer employees and the savings will cover annual lease payments. Republican legislative leaders said before Christmas that they had grown comfortable with the project, but several said Thursday they've had more questions since.
"Then I was uncomfortable with it," said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican. "I continue to be in discovery mode."
Brownback needs the approval of five of the eight legislative leaders. The group's two Democrats oppose the plan, partly because they worry about staffing levels and whether a lease-purchase deal would be more expensive than issuing bonds to build the prison.
Besides Hineman, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, expressed renewed misgivings about the plan. Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he's not sure how he would vote.
Brownback's office said the governor would reschedule the meeting but did not say when. Spokesman Kendall Marr said the delay allows lawmakers to gather more information.
"I think it's still possible to get a deal," Marr said.
CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns said in an email that "there is no expiration date" on its willingness to respond to lawmakers' questions.
"However, the current environment of rapidly rising construction costs means the validity of construction project cost estimates is now measured in days rather than weeks," he said.
The department has said it faces $12 million worth of deferred repair projects at the existing Lansing prison, including new roofs, new locking systems and a new water line for its maximum-security cell house.
"If the project gets delayed, some of that's going to have to be done," Hineman said.
Parts of the Lansing prison date back to the 1860s and still feature long lines of tiered cells. Lawmakers said that even parts of the prison built in the 1980s were poorly designed, requiring more staff to watch the same number of inmates in a modern prison.
The department projects that with a new prison, staffing could drop to 371 employees from 682 and that its numbers were validated in outside reviews by Indiana officials and the National Institute of Corrections. McGinn said she's still worried about staffing levels.
"We just have concerns that it would be implemented properly," she said.