Could an infusion of state money get the NBAF construction project off the ground?
That’s a question being asked this week in Topeka following word that the Obama administration has stricken construction funds for the level 4 biosecurity lab from its 2013 budget.
There is no indication precisely how much state officials would be willing to invest in the NBAF beyond the more than $100 million they’re previously committed. But both Gov. Sam Brownback and top leaders of the Legislature say they are willing to examine the idea.
The Obama budget recommendation also requires the Department of Homeland Security to reassess the project, its scope and alternatives.
The news was a setback for Kansas leaders who see the new $650 million research lab as the crown jewel of the state’s efforts to be a world leader in animal health research and related industries. The project would replace an aging facility at Plum Island, N.Y.
“It’s going to be a fight,” Brownback said, although he added that “I think we’re going to get this done. “ He predicted the matter would be an ongoing discussion.
Brownback talked to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to win assurances that the administration was still intent on building the NBAF and that the reassessment had nothing to do with building the lab in Kansas and everything to do with money.
Kansas has already transferred land to DHS for the project, which has been cleared, and authorized $105 million in bonds to pay for construction of a central utility plant.
Senate President Steve Morris, one of the biggest supporters of the project in the Legislature, said he had discussions with Brownback last week about what Kansas might do to keep the NBAF on track. Morris declined to give details about those talks, but isn’t ready to rule out any funding sources.He said he doesn’t “have a problem doing what we need to do, if it’s increasing our debt level modestly.”
“NBAF is so important that we need to consider every viable alternative to make sure it goes forward,” he said.
There’s no additional money that the state could spend in this year’s budget, but House Speaker Mike O’Neal said bonding could be part of the solution. No one is willing to say how much of the $650 million price tag the state would be willing to pick up.
“I’m all for looking at other alternatives in light of the fact that the feds aren’t being very kind right now,” said O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican. “I’m with the governor. I think the thing gets built (as planned) or built with a different financing scheme.”
But getting state money beyond what is already committed in order to help build a federal lab would be difficult under any circumstances, and moreso given the state’s own budget issues. State Sen. Roger Reitz said he believed the only way to do so would be by borrowing or taxing, and support for either would be difficult to come by.
The lab is expected to be the western anchor of the so-called Animal Health Corridor stretching from Kansas State to the University of Missouri in Columbia. The corridor consists of hundreds of animal health companies researching and developing the latest and best advancements in livestock production.
The stakes are high for the state, which has banked on the NBAF serving as a global magnet for increased bioscience activity along the corridor for the next 25 years or more.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said it was ironic that the Kansas congressional delegation — all Republicans — were upset with Obama’s budget when they have been “beating the drum” for him to cut federal spending since he took office.
“I don’t think it should come as any surprise that the president’s going to try to balance the budget and there are certain things that he’s going to do,” said Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. “Certainly, the decision that the administration made is one at some point that we hope will be reversed, but they have their own budget problems.”
Hensley said Kansas has been a partner with the federal government in past projects and he would support doing that again with the NBAF should it come to that.
“We certainly want to be a partner in this. It would just depend on how much and what the proposal would be,” Hensley said.
Morris said the Obama administration is being “short-sighted” in delaying funding and construction of the NBAF, adding that the need for a research facility of this magnitude is important for the nation’s food safety and to protect public health.
“Cost and scope is all relative. Can you put a cost on people’s health?” Morris said.