Kansas GOP conservatives balk at more bonds for biosecurity lab

04/25/2013 4:19 PM

08/08/2014 10:16 AM

Conservative Republican state senators pushed back Thursday on Gov. Sam Brownback’s request that Kansas issue $202 million more in bonds to help finance a federal biosecurity lab in Manhattan.

Members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee heard the pitch from Landon Fulmer, the governor’s chief of staff. He said the bonding request represented the last money that Kansas would have to contribute to building the $1.15 billion National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State University.

President Barack Obama’s proposed federal budget includes $714 million to build the laboratory. The installation would replace an aging lab on Plum Island, N.Y., and would study animal diseases and develop measures to protect the nation’s food supply.

Fulmer said the $202 million bonding request represented an increase the state’s dollar amount of the overall cost the state agreed to contribute to the project – Kansas is picking up 20 percent of the tab and the federal government 80 percent, an amount negotiated in 2009.

But GOP senators expressed concern that Kansas can’t afford to increase its share of funding and worried that the state would be on the hook for even more money in future years.

“Can’t we get a better deal than this?” asked Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican.

Kansas has already issued $105 million in bonds for the project, as well as $35 million from the Kansas Bioscience Authority. Legislators will consider the bonding request when they return May 8 to the Statehouse to finish the session.

Fulmer said that by locking in state and federal funds would help prevent construction costs from escalating as the lab is built. He said much of the increase in the price tag, originally set at closer to $600 million, was caused by changes in design to make the facility safer.

“It’s a significant change but it is the right thing to do right now,” Fulmer said.

Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said the state’s tight financial situation made the bonding request difficult. Kansas is facing declining revenues caused by the enactment of 2012’s massive income tax cuts, which are forcing budget committees to trim expenses.

“The numbers are getting really big really quick,” Denning said of the lab’s cost. “You’re asking us to do something really risky. We’re going to have to kick this can down the road.”

The land on the north edge of the Kansas State campus has been transferred to the Department of Homeland Security, and construction has begun on a stand-alone central utility plant that will provide service to the new lab. Construction on the lab is expected to begin in May 2014, depending on Congress approving federal funds.

Sen. Laura Kelly said the federal-state match on projects was typical, and said she expects the bonding to be approved with little trouble when legislators return.

“I don’t think anybody will want to throw a roadblock in front of NBAF,” said Kelly, a Topeka Democrat. “The economic implication of that is huge. Economic growth in the immediate region will generate enough new revenue to offset the cost of the bonds.”

The 2014 budget that Kansas legislators have been negotiating doesn’t include additional state support. However, because of the structuring of bonding issues, it is likely that the state wouldn’t begin repaying the debt for several years.

The entire complex will be adjacent to Kansas State’s Biosecurity Research Institute, which already conducts research on deadly plant and animal diseases that are of a lesser threat than the diseases contemplated to be researched in the federal labs.

Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican and veterinarian, said he was concerned about the impact on the agriculture economy should any disease escape NBAF and infect the region’s livestock.

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