- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas lawmakers moved Friday to assert more control over the state’s use of debt to finance big building projects in the wake of the University of Kansas and Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration pursuing initiatives without legislative approval.

The House gave first-round approval to a bill that would require the full Legislature to authorize bonds, borrowing against the state’s credit or other debt for projects costing $25 million or more. Smaller projects would have to be approved by the governor and legislative leaders.

The bill advanced on a voice vote without opposition, and the House expects to take final vote Monday to determine whether the measure goes to the Senate. The bill also sets up a commission to write new rules for partnerships on projects between government agencies and private corporations.

“I will admit that this process is somewhat cumbersome, but it serves the purpose of providing the legislative oversight that we are charged with,” said Rep. Mark Hutton, a Wichita Republican who explained the bill to his colleagues.

The measure covers debts issued by state agencies and institutions, other than the Department of Transportation and the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas. It also applies to public-private partnerships or corporations affiliated with state agencies and institutions, outside of university athletic departments, alumni associations and fundraising foundations.

The measure also would require monthly reports to legislators by the Kansas Development Finance Authority, a state agency that issues bonds and handles debt.

Legislators drafted the measure after learning that a nonprofit corporation affiliated with the University of Kansas went to Wisconsin’s Public Finance Authority for issuance of $327 million in bonds for a development that includes a new science building, housing for 1,200 students, a new student union building and a new power plant.

If the university or corporation would have gone through the Kansas agency, legislative approval would have been required.

The bonds were issued in January, just before legislators convened the annual session. University officials said they had to move quickly because they face a shortage of student housing space in the fall of 2017.

The university faced questions about the developments amid bipartisan criticism of Brownback’s administration over its $20 million project to demolish the Docking State Office Building near the Statehouse and to replace its power plant with a new one for nearby government buildings.

Brownback’s administration had planned to finance the project through a 15-year lease-purchase agreement with Bank of America, and the deal was executed in late December - weeks after a legislative committee expressed misgivings.

But the governor canceled the project last month and the state has paid $2.66 million in penalties.

Administration officials said they’re comfortable with the bill advancing in the House, and Hutton said he worked with the state Board of Regents on it.

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Online:

Text of bill: http://bit.ly/1nVvIy9

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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