TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Gov. Sam Brownback said Tuesday that a decision to reassess the proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan was not made over the project's need, but its cost and scope.
The Republican said he spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier in the day about President Barack Obama's budget recommendation to delete funding for the project in his 2013 budget. The budget request also requires the Department of Homeland Security to reassess the viability of building the lab and alternatives.
"She assured me that the 'reassessment' had nothing to do with the need for or location of the NBAF but rather with the overall cost and scope of the project," Brownback said in a statement. "DHS selected Manhattan as the location of the NBAF on the merits. And I fully expect that the NBAF will be built here."
The $650 million lab is to be built near Kansas State University and replace an aging facility at Plum Island, N.Y. Kansas officials said Tuesday they're uncertain when the administration changed its mind on the project, but they will be seeking answers.
Sen. Pat Roberts, ranking Kansas Republican in Congress, said the state's delegation has been "working overtime, across party lines" on the NBAF project with federal agencies. Spokeswoman Sarah Little said Roberts remained focused on shepherding NBAF through the appropriations process, calling it a "critical national security priority."
"DHS must explain why they have performed an about-face. Marines prefer to advance and that is just what Sen. Roberts will continue to do," Little said, referring to the senator's military background.
Napolitano will testify on Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee about the agency's 2013 budget.
Brownback said Tuesday that he would convene a steering committee that he formed in July 2011 in the coming weeks to discuss the next step in the process. He added that the state and federal delegation would be aggressive in pursuing funding for NBAF. Roberts is the chairman of that committee.
Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who's on the NBAF task force said he hasn't heard from Brownback's administration about the task force since being named to it last summer. That's a sign of neglect, Hensley said.
"It begs the question of why they haven't met," he told The Associated Press. "It's an indication that they haven't stayed on top of the issue."
DHS awarded Kansas the project in 2010 as part of an effort to improve biosecurity research of plant and animal diseases. However, the project has been a target in Congress among those members who question the risk of bringing the dangerous research on the U.S. mainland, the need to replace Plum Island and the overall cost of the project.
In 2012, Congress initially deleted $150 million in NBAF funding before $50 million was restored. The White House said Monday that the $50 million was insufficient to begin construction and called for the reassessment.
Kansas officials say the only thing that has changed is the fiscal climate in Washington, not the need for the lab.
Workers have already cleared the Kansas site, and the state has committed itself to authorizing up to $105 million in bonds to help with the project. State officials envisioned the lab, which would research foot-and-mouth and other dangerous animal diseases, as a key part of an emerging biosciences industry.
Senate President Steve Morris, also a member of Brownback's NBAF task force, said it would be wise to develop the next strategy.
"This is just a huge food safety issue that we cannot let slide. To me, not funding this is not good public policy. It's reckless," said Morris, a Hugoton Republican.
Two lobbying firms also have been working on Kansas' behalf on a variety of government issues the last eight years in Washington. One of the firms is Chambers, Conlon and Hartwell, which had a $140,000 contract with the state in 2011.