Recent demotions in the Kansas congressional delegation shouldn’t weaken support for a new federal $1.15 billion animal research lab to replace the aging facility on Plum Island in New York, officials say.
Funding for the National Bio- and Agro-defense Facility has been slowed in recent years by tight federal funding sources and ongoing reviews of the laboratory’s size, scope and risk. The Department of Homeland Security facility is designed to replace an aging animal research lab at Plum Island with the capability to research deadly animal diseases such as foot and mouth that affect livestock.
But new pressures have emerged. The deadline for avoiding massive increases in federal taxes and mandatory spending reductions has prompted concerns that the nation can’t afford to build the facility.
“The environment for getting NBAF funded is getting more and more difficult,” said Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.
A vocal critic of the project has been New York Rep. Tim Bishop, a Democrat who represents Long Island. He said the fiscal cliff should be reason enough to kill the project.
“I hope that it does,” he said. “If we are going to impose statutory caps on discretionary spending, then I think we should eliminate funding for NBAF entirely. We do not need it, we cannot afford it and the National Academy of Sciences has said it is a poor idea to build it where it is proposed.”
He said he has written to the Office of Management and Budget urging that the president’s 2014 budget “not include funding for NBAF.”
Last week, 1st District Rep. Tim Huelskamp had two plum committee assignments stripped by House Speaker John Boehner and the GOP Steering Committee. Huelskamp, a conservative Republican who represents much of western and central Kansas, lost his seats on the House Budget and Agriculture committees for what he described as “petty and vindictive” politics because he voted his conscious and district on a number of fiscal issues.
Kansas has had a member on the agriculture committee since statehood in 1861.
Huelskamp said he didn’t believe his demotion would darken the project’s future.
As a result of redistricting this summer, the 1st District now includes Riley County and Manhattan. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a Topeka Republican, previously represented the area since being elected to the 2nd District in 2008.
“We’ve never given up our support for NBAF. The folks in Riley County can’t vote me anymore but I can still vote for them. We are going to continue do everything we can to keep that on track,” Jenkins said.
She said she was in contact with DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano on a regular basis about the project and will continue to “dog the issue.”
“Public safety should be the primary focus of the government and that’s certainly what that project does,” Jenkins said.
Sen. Pat Roberts, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has been among the staunchest supporter for NBAF. He frequently refers to it as a key piece in the nation’s security policy, especially as it relates to the economy and food supply.
“NBAF will remain a top national security priority for the nation because the threat to our nation’s plant and animal health remains,” Roberts said. “It is impossible to predict what will happen to our nation should we find ourselves at the bottom of the fiscal cliff and budget sequesters take effect. At this point, all we can do is what we have always done: work to see that a laboratory to address these threats is built and is built in Kansas.”
A report this summer from the National Research Council gave DHS options to consider in moving forward with its plans, ranging from moving forward with the same size and scope of operation to scaling back the project and disbursing the research at existing labs across the country.
State officials had actively promoted northeast Kansas as a potential site for the lab, seeing it as crucial to efforts to create a strong biosciences industry and create more than 300 jobs that would pay an average of more than $75,000 a year. The state is committed to issuing up to $105 million in bonds to help with the project.
One option for Kansas would be for the state to pick up a greater share of the cost of the project, said Sen. Terry Bruce, who will take over as majority leader of the Kansas Senate in January.
The Hutchinson attorney said it could be possible for the state to find other funding sources to replace reduced federal funds, such as issuing bonds while interest rates are low, seeing it as an investment in agriculture and high-tech research jobs for generations.
“You might be able to get a long-term lease where the payments cover your bond and interest payments,” Bruce said. “That would be a best-case scenario.”
Legislators haven’t openly discussed such a proposal and doing so may be difficult in 2013 with the state facing a projected budget shortfall of nearly $328 million in the upcoming fiscal year.
Frank Eltman contributed to the report from Long Island, N.Y.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.