TWIN FALLS • Two Magic Valley lawmaker could be the linchpin in a debate over whether the state should take over a private prison.
It’s an option that Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke has proposed twice to the state Board of Corrections in the past decade. But this time around, it’s Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter suggesting the idea, according to a Spokesman-Review article this week.
During the next legislative session, Otter will be tapping the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee for input on what to do with the soon-to-be-open prison. JFAC won’t be making any decisions, but will be making recommendations based on funding comparisons.
“It’s been a hotly debated topic for some time,” said state Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “It’s looking at privately run facilities and publicly managed facilities. We have experiences with both and we have good and bad experiences with both.”
Earlier this week, Corrections Corp. of America, the largest private prison manager in the U.S., announced it would no longer seek a new bid to operate the Idaho Correctional Center, just south of Boise. With its contract ending June 30, 2014, Otter said it could be worth considering having the state manage the facility, according to the Spokesman-Review report.
Magic Valley lawmakers, who co-chair the state budget committee, agreed state control could expand its reach to oversee the prison, but they were not sure if that was the best choice for Idaho.
“I’m not sure I want to put extra revenues in a state prison when we’ve curtailed so much in the past,” Cameron said, JFAC co-chair. ”Corrections are important. Keeping people safe is important, but so is funding education.“
Finding raises for current state employees has been nearly impossible over the past few years and adding additional employees won’t make that easier, Cameron said.
Otter’s flirting with a state-managed prison is a drastic step away from his traditional anthem promoting private companies to operate the state prison. In 2008, Otter proposed that all state prisons be turned over to private companies.
“He’s way off his true nature; his nature is private,” said state Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who is also a JFAC co-chair. “It’s always been his way. This must be a difficult path for him to trod.“
The issue, Bell said, was never about funding. Instead, both Otter and lawmakers have preferred to hold off from expanding state government employees and state systems.
“I can look at the funding when (Otter) is ready,” Bell said. “I think there is a cheaper option with the state taking over but I’m not sure.“