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Funding for biolab at K-State stalls in Congress

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, at 6:53 a.m.

Less than six months after confidently breaking ground on the first part of a $1.2 billion federal biolab in central Kansas, the state’s politicians are fidgeting.

Construction of the central utility plant for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State University is well underway.

But the most important piece of the funding puzzle – another $404 million from Washington to pay for the actual laboratory building – remains stuck, unapproved by Congress and unsigned by the president.

Stuck is not a good place to be. Not with crucial congressional budget talks that threaten funding this year.

If congressional negotiators can agree on resetting a second round of required sequester spending cuts, experts said, the NBAF construction funds will likely sail through.

If their talks collapse, though, Congress is likely to simply extend the current spending law – leaving the NBAF lab as an artist’s drawing for another year or potentially more.

“If you don’t reach this agreement … there will be no funding for this project,” said Bill Hoagland, a budget analyst and senior vice president with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

On the record, several Kansas politicians appear confident Washington will approve the NBAF spending. The project enjoys broad support from the White House and both parties in Congress, they noted, and the power plant work is ongoing.

But many Kansas policymakers – facing the reality of a tightfisted federal government – also seemed reluctant to openly give assurances that lab construction will start in 2014 as planned.

Through his press office, Gov. Sam Brownback would say only that he is “working with our federal partners to ensure this vital project will be completed.” Kansas Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts, both Republicans, declined to comment.

Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas, a Republican, blamed the Senate for failing to pass the NBAF spending.

Ron Trewyn, vice president for research at K-State, said he hoped federal budget disputes would be overcome and the project would get its money.

But “there are hurdles in Washington that have to be cleared for us to get it this year,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Federal money is critical. Without it, Kansas will not provide the additional $202 million it has authorized for the project, and lab construction will be delayed.

The building is already two years behind schedule and twice as expensive as originally proposed.

House and Senate budget negotiators met for the first time last week. They face a mid-December deadline for presenting a budget package that funds the government while dealing with roughly $90 billion in mandated sequester cuts.

Some Kansas officials worry negotiators will use NBAF money to pay for last-minute deals over the next sequester, which requires cuts to defense programs and discretionary spending.

But Hoagland discounted the use of NBAF as a bargaining chip. Budget negotiators, he said, need long-term savings, not the one-time boost that cutting NBAF would provide.

Aging biolab

The NBAF building is designed to replace the aging federal biolab in Plum Island, N.Y. When it is completed, scientists will study pathogens that threaten the nation’s livestock.

The Homeland Security Department has pushed for the project for years. Site purchase and clearance, project design and the power plant construction at K-State will be paid for with roughly $200 million in already-allocated state and federal funds.

But building the lab itself will cost nearly $1 billion more. That’s why Kansas politicians were ecstatic this spring when President Obama officially proposed another $714 million for actual lab construction.

Kansas agreed to kick in another $202 million several weeks later.

“The state stepped up to the plate,” said Fred Logan, chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents. “They really won over the Obama administration.”

But the extra Kansas funds didn’t completely convince the GOP-controlled House. In June, it reduced Obama’s recommendation to $404 million, a figure later adopted by a Senate committee.

The Senate bill never reached the floor. The result: still no money for the main NBAF building.

“The administration continues to encourage Congress to provide full NBAF funding in this year’s appropriations acts,” said a statement from Nicole Stickel, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security. “Once these funds are available … construction can begin on the main laboratory.”

Safety a concern

While many Kansas politicians and educators will be happy if and when that building begins to be constructed, others remain less enthusiastic.

Members of Congress from New York have pressed to remove the NBAF funding, arguing instead for upgrades at Plum Island. Those efforts have largely failed.

And some in and out of Kansas are still worried the lab is a safety risk. Federal officials have strengthened the facility design and paid for several studies suggesting the danger from an accidental release of foot-and-mouth disease pathogens is small.

But Brandy Carter, executive director of the Kansas Cattlemen’s Association, says her members are still worried their herds could be devastated in an accident or severe weather.

They’re also worried Washington won’t spend any more than $404 million on the project, leaving Kansas taxpayers on the hook for promised safety upgrades.

“They’re not funding it enough,” Carter said. “At this point, they need to withdraw that, go back to square one.”

Her view isn’t likely to be popular with most Kansas politicians, who have enthusiastically backed the project.

Trewyn, the K-State official, said he wouldn’t predict what Washington will do with NBAF this year. But he says the funds will eventually have to be spent.

“This is critically important for the country, to get this lab facility done,” he said. “Congress understands this and wants this project to move along.”

Reach Dave Helling at 816-234-4656 or dhelling@kcstar.com.

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