A fledgling association of construction contractors led by two political lobbyists plans to persuade the Kansas legislature to make an unprecedented investment of $ 315 million over seven years to reduce the backlog of university building repairs at all six universities public authorities.
Without the campaign’s official endorsement by the Kansas Board of Regents, lobbyists Ed McKechnie and David Kensinger worked behind the scenes to recruit business contractors and an assortment of sub-contractors to christen the University Contractors Association of Kansas. This new association would fund partner lobbying on Capitol Hill as they seek to adopt a $ 45 million per year plan to tackle dilapidated and undersized college buildings on campuses in Manhattan, Lawrence, Wichita, Hays, Emporia and Pittsburg.
The State Board of Regents maintains its demand that the 2022 legislature allocate an additional $ 25 million per year to continue building maintenance, rehabilitation and demolition projects at the University of Kansas, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, Fort Hays State University, Pittsburg State University, and Emporia State University.
According to an internal memo from the association, the proposal being purchased by the fledgling association of entrepreneurs, would result in an investment of $ 1.2 billion in the modernization of campus facilities. The plan calls for the cost to be met through the addition of statutory appropriations, an increase in university contributions and the growth of an existing state-wide property tax dedicated to construction needs.
The memorandum said the association’s strategy was to secure $ 45 million per year in new state funding for seven consecutive years during the legislative session beginning in January. The six universities are expected to contribute matching funds of $ 45 million per year for seven years from tuition fees or endowment donations.
That total would be combined with a minimum of $ 45 million per year from the Educational Building Fund, or EBF, which provided support for the maintenance of university buildings through a property tax of $ 1 million. EBF is expected to reach $ 53 million within 10 years. In years eight, nine and ten of the program, universities would increase their self-funded building maintenance budgets to match whatever was produced by EBF.
Final result of the association’s master plan: $ 1.28 billion for the modernization of university buildings until 2032.
“If you want to get something passed, this is probably the year to do it,” said McKechnie, a Pittsburg-area lobbyist who was a Democrat at Kansas House and a member of the board of trustees. State. . “We are looking for a few lawmakers to start this conversation. “
His preference for action in the 2022 session was based on the knowledge of the state government sitting on roughly $ 1 billion in federal funding for the economy and coronaviruses. At the same time, Kansas tax revenues have exceeded expectations as Republicans and Democrats prepared to debate tax cuts.
McKechnie formed the bipartisan college lobbying partnership with Kensinger, who served as campaign manager and chief of staff to Sam Brownback when the GOP lawmaker sought and won the election as U.S. governor and senator. Both operate lobbying firms.
A brief profile of McKechnie said one of his accomplishments helped the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association earn $ 3,500 in annual tax credits for every mile of track maintained by Watco, its former employer. In 2008, US Senator Pat Roberts was re-elected and declared Kensinger the “Kansas GOP lipstick-less pitbull, whose expertise in this new and very different world of political campaigning is unmatched.”
In an interview, McKechnie said about 10 contracting firms with a vested interest in multi-million dollar, commercial-scale projects at state universities have been approached to join the unique offering of the association to obtain public funding for the maintenance of university buildings. He did not identify these companies, but the list appeared to include the heating, ventilation and air conditioning company Trane Technologies. The documents describing the association’s program contained the Trane name and logo on the pages.
The association memo said six contractors had signed up to the academic lobbying approach modeled on Economic Lifelines, a coalition of companies and organizations supporting overall spending on the state’s transportation program.
Some companies approached by the lobbying duo were reluctant to join, including JE Dunn Construction, McCownGordon Construction and Hutton Construction.
“Some people aren’t sure they want to participate,” McKechnie said. “They are hoping that maybe they can do it without any help. Maybe yes. Maybe things will magically happen.
Hutton Construction, with offices in Wichita and three other cities, has backed out of the lobbying campaign over concerns about the optics of construction companies fabricating the policy framework to land big contracts with universities. Company founder Mark Hutton, a former state legislator, is a member of the state board of regents. His company has done work in Wichita State and K-State.
“We were approached and said ‘No’. For obvious reasons. We don’t want to be associated with lobbying for something that is seen to benefit a regent. It would be amazing, ”Hutton said.
He said it would be illegal for contracts to construct or renovate university buildings to be directed to companies in exchange for funding the association’s lobbying. There is too much government oversight for lobbying organizations in Kansas to get away with a pay-to-play effort, he said.
Increase in the order book
The six state universities own 28,000 acres, with 1,130 facilities comprising 38 million square feet. Half of these structures are classified as “mission critical”, with half of these properties being over 50 years old. The Board of Regents commissioned a study that found the cost of resolving the deferred maintenance backlog to be $ 1.26 billion. As time passes, the cost increases.
“If nothing is done within 20 years, it will amount to more than $ 4 billion,” said Blake Flanders, chairman of the State Council of Regents. “There has to be an approach that starts to mitigate deferred maintenance. “
The challenge of repairing campus buildings goes beyond aesthetics. Kicking the box would eventually lead to higher repair bills, more building system failures, additional health and safety risks, and an inability to meet the functional needs of college programs.
Flanders said the Board of Regents was convinced that state buildings should be maintained with the support of taxpayers. This sparked the recent request for state aid of $ 25 million per year from the 2022 legislature and governor, he said.
“We also know that there could be some really good ideas,” he said. “If the board’s request does not materialize, we will obviously continue to advocate for the board’s priorities. “
The Board of Regents has taken the initiative to ask each university to gradually increase its budget for building maintenance over the next six years.
As part of the college building maintenance reform plan put forward by McKechnie and Kensinger, the new state dollars would provide $ 315 million, or 25%, of a $ 1.2 billion program. The EBF, financed by property tax, would provide $ 492 million over the next 10 years, or 38% of the total. Universities would be responsible for generating $ 473 million over the period, a 37% share.
Doug Girod, chancellor of the University of Kansas, said the need for state support to reallocate or modernize campus buildings is overwhelming. However, he said, the financial commitments of universities as envisioned by lobbyists for the construction association were impractical.
“There is a corresponding expectation, which worries me a lot,” Girod said. “There’s no way we can do this. There are a lot of things we can fundraise for, but operations and deferred maintenance are not two of them.
Richard Myers, outgoing president of Kansas State University, said he had fewer objections to a plan focused on universities raising more money for building maintenance.
“Partnerships have worked in the past. It would be attractive, I would say, ”he said.
Myers said the legislature should accept that the EBF was insufficient to reasonably maintain a portfolio of university buildings in Kansas with a replacement cost of nearly $ 7 billion. The roughly $ 45 million allocated to universities each year through the EBF is woefully insufficient, he said.
Investing taxpayer dollars in universities should be seen as a form of academic enrichment and economic development, Myers said.
“We can’t nibble it very effectively with the current funding we have,” the president said.
Kansas Reflector, kansasreflector.com, is part of States Newsroom, a network of news offices supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c (3) public charity.
This story was originally published 24 December 2021 5.13 a.m.