Politics & Government

Kansas lawmakers approve bill to back out of Docking power plant deal

A $20 million agreement by Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration would demolish the Docking State Office Building in Topeka and construct a new state power plant on the site. The state now plans to end the agreement.
A $20 million agreement by Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration would demolish the Docking State Office Building in Topeka and construct a new state power plant on the site. The state now plans to end the agreement. The Wichita Eagle

Seeking to minimize the financial damage of backing out of a state power plant deal, the House and Senate rushed through a bill Tuesday denying money for the project.

The agreement, which would have involved the demolition of the Docking State Office Building in Topeka, had irritated lawmakers because Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration had committed to a $20 million lease-purchase agreement with Bank of America without approval from lawmakers.

The Docking building is across the street from the Capitol and its basement houses the plant that powers the Capitol complex.

The deal the administration made would have replaced the power plant and torn down the Docking building.

The contract contains financial penalty clauses for backing out. Tuesday’s bill, Senate Bill 250, seeks to minimize the financial damage to the state.

Under the contract, legislative refusal to appropriate money for the project probably triggers the smallest possible penalty with the construction company and bank, said Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said the exact figure would be worked out in negotiations with the bank but that Attorney General Derek Schmidt had advised lawmakers this would be the least costly option.

Brownback moved last week to cancel the state’s contract with Leawood-based McCarthy Construction Co., which was to build the facility.

“The Governor felt like it was time to move onto other issues,” said Eileen Hawley, the governor’s communications director in an e-mail. “He made the decision Feb. 17 and informed key legislators the next day.”

“The Governor did not ask the legislature to send him the bill but is happy to consider any legislation they choose to send him,” Hawley said about lawmakers’ decision to pass legislation to end the project. “It is not clear that the legislation will have an effect on the cancellation of the contracts.”

Sen. Kay Wolf, R-Prairie Village, who chairs the Joint Committee on State Building Construction, said the Department of Administration had skirted the usual process when it made the agreement with Bank of America the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The committee had told the agency at an October meeting to consider less costly alternatives to demolishing Docking and to inform it before it finalized any lease-purchase agreements. Wolf said that information was not provided, but blamed it on a miscommunication.

Other lawmakers said the administration intentionally circumvented lawmakers.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, blasted Brownback, who he said committed an “illegal act,” by making the financial contract without notifying or getting approval from the Legislature.

“I think it’s interesting the governor’s coming to us to clean up his mess,” Ward said. But he supported the bill, calling it “the least bad option we have.”

The bill passed 121-1 in the House. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, voted against it.

It passed unanimously in the Senate.

Those majorities are veto proof.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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