Kansas may be walking down the same unfortunate path Kansas City strolled this summer.
The state said Thursday it will use a “negotiated procurement process” to decide on a builder for a new prison in Lansing. A three-person committee will review three proposals for the prison and then aim to select one for recommendation by the end of November.
It should sound familiar. It’s roughly the same way Kansas City picked a proposer for a new terminal at the airport. And, like Kansas Citians, Kansans should be worried about secrecy.
The prison project will cost 200 million tax dollars. Maybe. The state won’t say for sure. It also won’t say who the bidders are, or what the judging criteria will be, or how the proposals may be different.
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And your money, apparently, is not an object. If a procurement is negotiated, “price must be a factor in the award, but not the sole factor,” state rules say.
Kansas City’s airport terminal selection process followed a similar path. Only immense public pressure forced city officials to open the doors, just a crack, to a more transparent selection process.
But that pressure paid enormous dividends. A competitive bidding process may end up saving travelers and KCI users $300 million or more during the next three decades. Calls for openness eventually yielded information that voters can now use to judge the selection process.
It continues to amaze us that some public officials believe the public’s business should be conducted behind closed doors. Kansas should tell the public now how much a new prison will cost, who wants to build it and what the competing proposals look like.
Kansas statutes allow negotiated procurements. But the state’s own procurement laws say negotiations should be used “to obtain services or technical products for (a) state agency.”
A new prison is hardly a service or technical product. It’s a massive undertaking, with implications for Lansing and the state for the next 100 years. It’s one of the most expensive and important things the state ever buys.
Yet Kansas will likely ask taxpayers to simply accept the word of the procurement committee. The group’s choice will be presented to either the state’s Finance Council or state lawmakers who may have little chance to review the decision.
State rules recognize the risk. The procurement committee must provide “written justification for actions taken,” a potential fig leaf that serves as a substitute for early transparency.
Kansans should not be asked to fund a secret prison deal. The state can act now to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Here’s how: full disclosure before the committee makes a choice, and before Kansans sign the check.